In this volume, we discuss the alphabet, definite and indefinite articles, and verbs ser and estar, among other topics.
Articles are words that accompany nouns and give us information about their identifiability, or, in other words, whether the noun that it accompanies constitutes previously known information.
Let's see it with an example:
I went to see a movie.
I went to see the movie.
In the second version, I'm assuming you know which movie I'm talking about. In the first version, I am not.
Many languages don't have articles. English and Spanish do, and they work similarly.
Both in English and in Spanish we have two types of articles: definite and indefinite.
Definite articles are the ones that assume identifiability (if I mention the movie, I'm assuming you know which movie I'm talking about, either because we discussed it earlier or because I know you know for any other reason, i.e. there is a previous reference, which can be explicit or implicit).
Indefinite articles are the ones that don't assume identifiability (if I mention a movie, it could be any movie).
In English, the definite article is the, and it works for singular and plural: the movie, the movies. The indefinite articles are a and some: a movie, some movies. When the noun starts with a vowel sound, a becomes an: an apple, some apples.
In Spanish, we also have definite and indefinite articles. They have to agree with the noun in gender and number.
These are the definite articles:
El (singular, masculine)
La (singular, feminine)
Los (plural, masculine)
Las (plural, feminine)
These are the indefinite articles:
Un (singular, masculine)
Una (singular, feminine)
Unos (plural, masculine)
Unas (plural, feminine)
Here are some examples:
Una película. (A movie.)
Unas películas. (Some movies.)
La película. (The movie.)
Las películas. (Some movies.)
Un restaurante. (A restaurant.)
Unos restaurantes. (Some restaurants.)
El restaurante. (The restaurant.)
Los restaurantes. (The restaurants.)
Here's Dan pronouncing all the definite and indefinite articles in Spanish:
Both in English and in Spanish, the definite article has a special use case: it can indicate that the noun it accompanies is a unique or particular member of its class:
We can see how this could still be considered implicit previously known information, as we are assuming the listener or the reader knows who the President and the Lord are and what the law is.
In Spanish, there’s an extra use of the definite article: when a common noun (i.e. a noun denoting a concept as opposed to a particular individual) is in the subject position and it has an "in general" implication, it’s always preceded by the definite article:
Cheese [in general] is delicious.
El queso [en general] es delicioso.
Firefighters [in general] work for the city.
Los bomberos [en general] trabajan para la ciudad.
Since common nouns in the subject position always either have an "in general" implication or otherwise need a standard definite or indefinite article, we’ll never find in Spanish a sentence beginning with a bare common noun. Remembering this is probably a better way to always get it right, without giving it that much thought.
And, by the way, languages, demonyms, days of the week and seasons are all common nouns in Spanish (and are never capitalized).
Los domingos son muy aburridos. (Sundays are very boring.)
El alemán es muy difícil. (German is very difficult.)
Los alemanes son muy puntuales. (Germans are very punctual.)
El invierno en Chicago es muy duro. (Winter in Chicago is very tough.)
For indefinite articles, there’s also a case in which Spanish and English are different. When we want to say I’m a [profession], we’ll drop the a in Spanish, and we’ll just say soy [profesión].
I am an accountant.
Sarah is a nurse.
Sarah es enfermera.
If you remember these two things, you’ll get your articles right 99.9% of the time:
1. Never begin a sentence with a bare common noun. Just throw an article in there!
2. Drop the un/una when you’re trying to say someone is a [profession].
Sometimes, both in English and in Spanish, we'll use numbers instead of articles when we want to be specific about the quantity.
When that number is one, but we still want to emphasize the quantity, in English we will use one instead of a:
I watched a movie. => I watched one movie.
In Spanish, the thing is number uno becomes un when it precedes a masculine noun and una when it precedes a feminine one, making it indistinguishable from the indefinite article.
I watched a movie. => Miré una película.
I watched one movie. => Miré una película.
I went to a restaurant. Fui a un restaurante.
I went to one restaurant. Fui a un restaurante.
We'll have to determine whether we are using the indefinite article or the number one in Spanish by using contextual clues.
In English, when a precedes a noun that starts with a vowel sound, we have to use an instead:
In Spanish, when a feminine noun starts with a stressed A sound, we have to use the masculine article instead.
El águila. (The eagle.)
Las águilas. (The eagles.)
Un águila. (An eagle.)
Unas águilas. (Some eagles.)
El arma. (The weapon.)
Las armas. (The weapons.)
Un arma. (A weapon.)
Unas armas. (Some weapons.)
It is not recommended to do this in proper Spanish. But you should know people do it sometimes.
In Spanish, lo is usually a direct object pronoun. In certain cases, when we are talking about abstract ideas, it can be used as a neuter article. Here are some examples:
Lo bueno. (All good things.)
Lo malo. (All bad things.)
There is a debate among linguists about whether lo in this case is really a neuter article. Some people say it is still acting as a pronoun. The argument for considering it an article is that it has the ability to turn adjectives (like bueno and malo) into nouns.
It doesn't show up often in Spanish, but you might see it in certain sayings, like this one:
Lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno.
Which could be translated as:
The good things, if they are brief, are twice as good.
What is good, if brief, is twice as good.
Here are some ideas:
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