Spanish Language Learning – The article ‘el’

All beginning students of the Spanish language are familiar with the article ‘el’. It is almost always one of the first concepts introduced. Nouns in Spanish have gender, and singular masculine nouns attach to the masculine definite article ‘el’: ‘el hombre’, ‘el edificio’, ‘el balón’. Similarly, singular feminine nouns generally attach to the feminine definite article ‘la’: ‘la casa’, ‘la mujer’, ‘la gata’. But for more advanced students, things get a bit confusing because there is one more definite article that is used with certain singular feminine nouns.

The masculine definite article ‘el’ has a homonym – or more precisely, a homograph. What exactly is a homograph? Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings, such as ‘bark’ (of a tree) and ‘bark’ (of a dog). In the same way, the word ‘el’ is both the *masculine* definite article and also a *feminine* definite article. The feminine definite article ‘el’ is only used immediately in front of singular feminine nouns that begin with a stressed /a/ sound (such as ‘agua’, ‘alma’, or ‘hambre’).

Even though ‘alma’ is a feminine noun, one says ‘el alma’, not ‘la alma’, or ‘el agua’, not ‘la agua’. Adjectives attached to these feminine nouns must be feminine. Therefore, it is ‘el alma dormida’, not ‘el alma dormido’. Note that ‘el’ is only used directly before these nouns (without any intervening words). Therefore, it is ‘la misma alma’, not ‘el misma alma’ (and definitely not ‘el mismo alma’).

It is also wrong to say ‘poco agua’, ‘todo el hambre’, or ‘el primer aula’. It is possible to find examples like these where the gender of the noun is not in agreement with the gender of the adjective, but these incorrect usages are the result of the confusion between the masculine definite article ‘el’ and the feminine definite article ‘el’. In English, even though it is grammatically incorrect to say “The dog ate it’s food” or “The boy get’s his toy”, it would be easy to find instances of these grammatical errors as they seem to be quite prevalent. The frequency of such mistakes does not change the fact that they are still grammatical errors.

So remember, it’s ‘el alma’, ‘poca agua’, ‘toda el hambre’, and ‘la primera aula’.

[Everything said here about the feminine definite article ‘el’ also applies to the feminine indefinite article ‘un’.]

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