This is an article about articles. Yes, it is definitely an article about definite articles.

One of the first lessons any Spanish student learns is that nouns in Spanish are gendered: masculine or feminine. El muchacho. La muchacha. El español. La página. El lápiz. La pizarra. There is a certain logic to the association of nouns and genders. There are two guiding principles. First, words that end in “-o” are mostly masculine (la mano is the big exception) and words that end in “-a” are mostly feminine (el día is the big exception). Second, words associated with males are mostly masculine, whether or not they end in “-o” (for instance padre, doctor, futbolista) while words associated with females are mostly feminine, whether or not they end in “-a” (for instance madre, agente, futbolista). This is more arte (curiously both “el” and “la) than ciencia (just “la”) but it helps to know there are many trail markers. Paying close attention to these two principles will get you through Spanish 1 without a fuss. Add to these a few other sure-fire rules,-dad, -tud, -ción, -sión, -ie are all “la,” and -ma, -pa, -ta, languages, and numbers are all “el,” you’re good to go. The real difficulty comes not with knowing whether a word is masculine or feminine but when to use the definite article at all. Two principles apply: 1) when in doubt, use it! and 2) don’t let English interfere with proper español.

Here are some examples:

1. El español es una lengua bella. Spanish, not “The Spanish,” is a beautiful language.

2. El amor es eterno. Love, not “the love” is eternal.

3. Vamos al cine el viernes por la tarde. We are going to the movies Friday afternoon.

4. Me encanta el baloncesto. I love basketball, not “the basketball.”

These are four common cases, chosen carefully based on 20 years seeing them sabotaged. I use #1 to demonstrate that languages and subjects are almost always used with the definite article. Example #2 shows that all abstract nouns definitely need articles. This one really trips students up because they translate right from English; nevertheless, you need the love and you need the article. #3 shows three things: we need to be aware of the contraction a + el = al; to say when something is happening you say el martes, el jueves, el domingo, etc.; and while we often say in the morning, in the afternoon and in the eventing in English, we always need to use the definite article in Spanish. I use #4 to show that verbs like gustar–encantar, fascinar, molestar–have subjects disguised as objects and, for that reason, need a definite article.

Curiously enough, the proper used definite articles is the first things a student is likely to encounter and the last that he or she is likely to master.

As with all things language, there is always a mix of science and intuition, of logic and lived experience. One needs to live the language, listen carefully and look out for interference. There are always cases that are just the way they are, pues porque sí. For example, if you are looking closely, you will see that the featured image for this post reads “SE HABLA ESPAÑOL” and not “SE HABLA EL ESPAÑOL.” Why, when it seems to be contrary to everything written above? Well, in these impersonal constructions the article is omitted. You will frequently see “Se vende auto,” “Se alquila piso” and “Se vende casa.” Best just to listen and learn. Good ways to practice? Study the rules above and try to inject your language study with idiomatic expressions. These expressions will reinforce the vocabulary and the rules in ways that make them real.

The article that inspired my to write this post was Ilan Stavans’ piece in The New York Times En Español entitled “Trump, la muralla y el español.” I saw the link to this post on Twitter. Though I don’t typically do so, I clicked on the “Translation from Spanish” icon. It gave me, as you can probably guess, “Trump, the wall and the Spanish.” Is it close? Sure. Did it fall prey to the classic trap? Sí, señor. But what did it really miss? It missed the subtlety in Spanish that “the wall” is a concrete, definite noun in English, therefore earns the “the.” Spanish, on the other hand, is Spanish, not “the Spanish.” It’s expressed in Spanish with the article “el” because languages are masculine and always expressed with the article attached.

Another perfect example can be found in the headline from El País, “El mal solo se puede combatir desde el mal.” There is lot happening here linguistically. There is the “el” repeated with the abstract noun mal, as it ought to be. There is also the unaccented “solo,” which I’m still on the fence about.

This is a nuance that older word-for-word translation programs would miss. It is also a trap generations of Spanish students have fallen into.

Amor es eterno. Guerra de las galaxias.

As machine based translation algorithms improve and as more translation is based on parsing language and real-person communication, I expect that things will improve greatly, particularly in the area. We shall see. Keep testing as I did and try to contribute improved translations where possible.

I have simplified things greatly here. There are treatises and tomes written on the topic. Curiously enough, the proper used definite articles is the first things a student is likely to encounter and the last that he or she is likely to master.

Have at it. ¡Viva la vida! ¡Viva el español!