Using the Four Definite Articles of Spanish

In the number-of-definite-articles game, the Spanish language trumps the English language four to one. What’s more is that the four forms of the Spanish the indicate both the number and gender of a subject. Not bad for a word that’s treated rather vaguely in the English language!

Spanish operates on a “more is better” kind of policy in that you have four different ways to say the definite article the: It can come before the girl, the girls, the boy, the boys, or any other subject you want to stick in! Here are the four forms of the in Spanish:

  • el (ehl) (the male the, singular)

  • la (lah) (the female the, singular)

  • los (lohs) (the male the, plural)

  • las (lahs) (the female the, plural)

So how do you know when to use which article? It’s easy. When the noun ends in -o, it’s male. If a word ends in -a, it’s female. (Some exceptions to this rule exist, but they’re pretty easy to figure out because they follow another rule — the ma, pa, ta rule — which holds that words ending in ma, pa, and ta are likely to be masculine even though a is the last letter.) The easy part to remember is that when you see -s at the end of the word, you know the word is plural. Here are some examples:

  • el niño (ehl nee-nyoh) (the boy)

  • los niños (lohs nee-nyohs) (the boys [or the children])

  • la niña (lah nee-nyah) (the girl)

  • las niñas (lahs nee-nyahs) (the girls)

When you have mixed company (meaning both the male and female genders are present), you use the male plural article. So the phrase los niños can mean boys or boys and girls.

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