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Definite and Indefinite Articles: English and Spanish

By Eric W. Vogt

Such small, but powerful words! People seldom give them much thought. This lesson is an overview of articles for beginners. It examines the main differences between definite and indefinite articles and also compares English and Spanish articles.

Understanding Articles

Articles make up a very small, but powerful class of words that are placed in front of nouns. There are two kinds of articles in English and in Spanish: definite articles and indefinite articles.

English has only one definite article – the — and one indefinite article – a, with an alternate form an which is used if the following noun begins with a vowel (both of the indefinite articles are singular; the plural being supplied by the word some or the expression a few).

Both types of articles draw special attention to the noun they precede. The choice of article shows the way in which the speaker is thinking about the noun: as a specific member of its class or as a general, representative member of its class.

Because articles modify nouns, they are best thought of as specialized adjectives, something like the younger brothers or sisters of adjectives. Unlike “real” adjectives, however, articles can only modify a noun in one of two ways.

Which Article Should You Use?

Let’s take the noun apple and see how our choice of definite and indefinite article will shade our perception of the word.

An article either points out a noun as a specific member of its class, as if pointing to it with one’s finger, in which case the definite article is used. Thus, the apple refers to a specific apple, not just any old apple. Perhaps the one the speaker is even pointing at it. Now, let’s suppose the speaker knows that there is a bag of apples in the refrigerator and doesn’t care which one he eats, he might ask someone to bring him an apple – hence the indefinite article an is used.

If you have studied Spanish for long, you’ll recall that Spanish all nouns have gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural). Even if you haven’t studied Spanish long, just knowing that nouns have a gender and number and that articles and adjectives have to agree with them in gender and number should enable you to answer this question: If English, a language without gender or number markers has only two articles (the, and a/an), how many definite and how many indefinite articles must Spanish have, being a language with gender and number markers for articles and adjectives?

If you answered four in each case, you are right: the becomes el, los (for masculine singular and plural) and la, las (for feminine singular and plural) and a/an becomes un, unos (for masculine singular and plural), una, unas (for feminine singular and plural).

Going back to our apple examples, una manzana is an apple, and la manzana is the apple. Likewise, the plurals are unas manzanas and las manzanas. Unas here could be interpreted as some or a few.

Be sure to look at the lesson on gender and number agreement.