One of the first things a beginner Spanish student learns is that the definite article1 must agree in gender and number with the noun that it refers to. El and los are used for masculine nouns, whereas la and las for feminine ones.
However, there’s a phenomenon you need to know about: when a singular feminine noun that begins with a stressed ‘a’ sound2,3 is preceded directly by a definite article you must use el instead of la. For example, el agua, el alma, el águila, and el hacha.
According to the RAE,4 even though this form is identical to the masculine article, it’s actually a formal variant of the feminine article. In fact, this feminine el does not have the same origin as the masculine el. The latter is from the Old Castilian ele, whereas the former is from ela, just as is la.
You must keep in mind that these nouns are feminine, thus everything but the singular article must agree with them, including: adjectives, pronouns and the plural article las. Therefore, we say el agua fría, las hachas, and el alma mía. And don’t forget the rule only applies when there’s no word between the article and the noun. So we say el águila dorada but la hermosa águila. Another observation worthy of remark is that this rule doesn’t take effect on derived words where the stress no longer falls on the initial ‘a’ sound. For example, you must say la agüita, because the stress is on the second syllable.
There are few exceptions to this rule:
- The names of the following letters: la a and la hache
- Before female proper names when an article is required. e.g. Ya no es la Ana con quien solía divertirme.
- When the word is used to refer to both sexes, and the definite article is the only way to tell them apart. e.g. el árabe (masculine), la árabe (feminine).
- Regarding places names, the names of the continents use el (el África, el Asia), whereas the names of countries and cities use la (La Haya, La Austria).
Although the RAE5 does not consider incorrect the use of una, alguna and ninguna in front of these words, most Spanish speakers will usually change them for their apocopated forms6 –which is also considered correct grammar. Hence, it is common to see constructions such as: un hada madrina, algún ave, ningún arma. On the other hand, you must always use the feminine forms of este, ese, aquel or any other determiner such todo, mucho, poco, otro, etc.
Finally, let’s take a look at two unusual words: azúcar7 and arte.[8Arte – Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española. – http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltGUIBusDPD?lema=arte] The former is a very special case. Its a is unstressed, and yet it can follow the above rule. So, you can say el azúcar refinada (el azúcar refinado and la azúcar refinada are also possible). Now, regarding arte, the RAE states its gender is ambiguous. However, it’s usually used as a masculine noun in singular and as a feminine one in plural. Thus, we say el arte moderno but las bellas artes.
- The definite article is a determiner that introduces a noun phrase and implies that the thing mentioned has already been mentioned, or is common knowledge, or is about to be defined. The English definite article is ‘the’. ↩
- Stress is the emphasis given to a particular syllable or word in speech, typically through a combination of relatively greater loudness, higher pitch, and longer duration. In written Spanish, accent marks (or the absence of them) let us know which syllable must be stressed. ↩
- The stressed ‘a’ sound (a tónica) can be written either a- or ha-. ↩
- El – Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española. – http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltGUIBusDPD?lema=el ↩
- Uno – Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española. – http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltGUIBusDPD?lema=uno ↩
- Apocopation is the dropping of the final vowel or syllable of a word. Alguno, ninguno and uno become algún, ningún and un respectively. Note that in the case of alguno and ninguno, a written accent is added to the apocopated form to preserve the position of the stress. ↩
- Azúcar – Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española. – http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltGUIBusDPD?lema=azucar ↩