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In Spanish, many words are composed of two nouns, e.g.,

  • el suelo del bosque - the forest floor
  • el salto de agua - the waterfall
  • la copa del árbol - the tree top

My problem is that I sometimes confuse "de" and "del" here, as I cannot find a rule or reason behind.

Is there a reason why either is chosen, or do I need to learn these subtle differences by heart?

And btw, does anybody now if there's a correct gramamtical term how these composed expressions are called?

  • I'm not sure, but I don't think there's a grammatical term in Spanish for that. The closest I can get is sintagma nominal (Spanish for Noun Phrase). – Yay Jan 30 '16 at 17:30
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Note: this is a list I made myself, so there may be things missing. I tried to include the most common situations, so don't take this as an exhaustive and fully comprehensive guide for when to use "de" and when to use "del" with compound names. That said, below is a list of situations when the article is required or not with some examples.

No article:

When speaking of materials:
- Mesa de madera (wooden table)
- Lata de hojalata (tin can)
- Escultura de hielo (ice sculpture)
- Abrigo de pelo (fur coat)

With flavours:
- Tarta de chocolate (chocolate cake)
- Salsa de gambas (shrimp sauce)

With seasons and months:
- Vestido de primavera/verano/otoño/invierno (spring/summer/autumn/winter dress)
- Primera quincena de febrero (first fortnight of February)

With a genre or theme:
- Película de terror (horror movie)
- Canción de amor (love song)
- Cine de autor (auteur cinema)

When speaking of emotional displays:
- Saltar de alegría (to jump with/for joy)
- Lágrimas de impotencia (tears of impotence)
- Ataque de ira (anger outburst)
- Mueca de dolor (wince)

Some fixed expressions:
- Fondo de armario (wardrobe basics; wardrobe essentials)
- Informe de errores (error report)
- Servicio de habitaciones (room service)
- Comida de empresa (business lunch; company lunch)
- Fiesta de despedida (farewell party)
- Bodas de oro (golden anniversary)
- Cuesta de enero (January’s uphill battle)
- Grito de guerra (war cry)
- Fin de semana (weekend)

Article:

When describing a part of something else:
- Pata de la mesa (table leg)
- Puerta de la cocina (kitchen door)
- Valle del río (river valley)
- Proa del barco (boat’s stern)
- Mango del cuchillo (knife handle)

With days:
- Prisas de los lunes (Monday rush)
- Bajón de los domingos (Sunday blues)

In many cases, an article is added in the situations in the first part when the noun is specified:

La primera quincena de Febrero es especialmente dura = the first fortnight of February is specially tough.
But
La primera quincena del Febrero de 1998 fue especialmente dura = the first fortnight of February 1998 was especially tough.

Similarly, in the first case of the second part (a part of something else), the article can be omitted when the noun is unspecific:

Una pata de mesa debe ser resistente = a table leg must be resistant.
But
La pata de la mesa de mi habitación es resistente = my room’s table leg is resistant.

However, this isn't always true: "valle de río" is always wrong, either if it is a specific valley or an unspecific one. When the article can be omitted and when not seems to be arbitrary, and hence dependant on each single case.

Finally, in your sentences "el suelo del bosque" fits into "a part of something else"; "el salto de agua" fits both in "materials" and "fixed expressions"; and "la copa del árbol" fits into "a part of something else".

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  • I don't think valle de río is always wrong, though we would prefer valle fluvial (as opposed to valle glacial, formed by a glacier). But I think we could equally say valle de río and valle de glaciar. – Gorpik Aug 17 '16 at 9:20
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de is used for what the thing is made of.

El suelo de bosque. (It means that the floor is made of forest.)

del is used when both things are in the same place.

El suelo del bosque. (Describing the floor as a part of the forest.)

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  • 1
    We also use "del" when one belongs to or is a part of the other: "copa" is a part of "árbol", but "agua" isn't a part of "salto"; rather, "salto" is made of "agua", but you would never say "copa" is made of "árbol". I don't think it's about being in the same place. Take abstract nouns: in "casualidades de la vida", it wouldn't make much sense to say that "casualidades" and "vida" are in the same place. Instead, an article is used because "casualidades" are a part of "vida". – Yay Jan 30 '16 at 15:04
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The use of de and del are called contractions.

DE EL = DEL
DE LA = DE LA
DE LOS = DE LOS
DE LAS = DE LAS

You basically "contract" two words into one.

The same rule applies with:

A EL = AL
A LA = A LAS
A LOS = A LOS
A LAS = A LAS

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  • I do not see how that answers the question which was for advice on when to use de and when to use del and for advice about what to call phrases like el X de Y – mdewey Aug 17 '16 at 16:46

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