Unit 2: Basics

2.4 Use of the Definite Article

Use of the definite article, as well as the indefinite article, corresponds to English usage and omission in the majority of cases. In a minority of cases Spanish employs the definite article in circumstances in which English speakers would not expect to find it. Nouns denoting an abstract concept, used in a general sense or referring to a general class, titles, the names of a few countries and cities, languages, and nationalities are routinely preceded by a definite article, which is not translated into English:

El fútbol es un pasatiempo nacional para los hispanos, brasileños, españoles y portugueses. Soccer is a national pastime for Hispanics, Brazilians, Spaniards, and Portuguese.
La libertad es necesaria. Liberty is necessary.
El señor Villareal no está aquí. Mr. Villareal isn’t here.
La India es una nación grande.* India is a large country.
La Habana es la capital de Cuba. Havana is the capital of Cuba.
El ruso es difícil, pero el español es fácil, Russian is difficult, but Spanish is easy.
¿Son religiosos los españoles? Are Spaniards religious?

*India is the only country before which it is considered mandatory to use the definite article, not translated into English. Other countries that use it in Spanish also employ it in English: La República Dominicana, El Salvador, El Reino Unido (The United Kingdom). There are some countries that use the definite article in English (The United States, The Philippines) that may not be seen with it in Spanish, in which case you will want to add it. While the definite article has traditionally been used to precede a number of countries (el Perú, la Argentina, el Brasil, el Uruguay, el Japón, el Canadá), the tendency is for it to be used less and less frequently.

The definite article is, however, usually used when the country or city is modified by an adjective or phrase: la España del siglo XV (“Spain of the 15th century”) or la Roma del pasado (“Rome of the past”).

In a sentence such as Los brasileños aman la música, there are four possible translations. One translation could be the generalization “Brazilians love music.” The sentence could also mean “The Brazilians love the music,” referring to specific Brazilians and specific music. The other two combinations mix specific and general meanings: “The Brazilians [those specific Brazilians there] love music [in general]” or “Brazilians [in general] love the music [a specific kind].” Depending on the overall context in which this sentence appears, you should be able to clarify the meaning.

The masculine singular and plural definite article, el and los, are used before days of the week to translate “on.” The singular is used, for example, to translate “on Monday” and the plural “on Mondays”:

Elena está aquí el lunes. Elena is here on Monday. (one specific Monday)
La señora Lozano no está allí los sábados. Mrs. Lozano is not there on Saturdays. (all Saturdays implied)


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