This was a practice sentence on Languagezen.com. I thought the correct answer would be "Mi esposo piensa que es santo".

I've read the following advice about using articles with ser:

Don't use the article before an unmodified noun after a form of ser ("to be"), especially in reference to occupation, religion, affiliation or social status.

Normally, if the noun is modified, the article should be used.

Although saint is not a profession, nor a religious affiliation, it is a role that defines one's identity just as significantly as profession or religious affiliation, which I presumed to be the underlying grammatical principle here.

Also, the noun is not modified here (e.g. "un santo muy importante"), so that rule doesn't apply.

So is using "un santo" correct here, and if so, why?

4 Answers 4


I agree with Mauricio but would like to add something that might account for the presence of the article in this particular case.

Unlike most other nouns denoting occupation, religion, affiliation or social status, "santo" can be an adjective (Definition of santo).

The idiomatic expression "ser un santo / ser una santa" does not merely describe a person as having many moral virtues but as being similar to a saint (like the ones who deserve veneration in Catholic lithurgy). We could say that this use of the noun "santo/a/s" is like a hyperbolic metaphor with which we define the person or the people involved.

The adjective is used to mean approximately the same thing, though the metaphor disappears in these cases, in sentences like:

  • Mi esposo es un santo varón.
  • Mi esposa es una santa mujer.

Without the article, "santo" and "santa" will not be metaphorical but will refer to the person having been officially declared a saint in the Catholic Church:

  • La Madre Teresa de Calcuta es beata y pronto será santa / será declarada santa.

Note: On rereading my answer and Andy's comments, I've come to the conclusion that the metaphorical use of certain nouns is the main reason for their taking an indefinite article. Some other examples:

  • Mi novia es una reina. (Not a real queen, but like a queen.)
  • Eres un maestro. (Not an actual teacher, but as knowledgeable as one.)
  • Ese niño es un demonio.
  • Eres un ángel.
  • okay, interesting. Along those lines, if you're an expert at something, though not an actual professor, would it make sense for me to say "eres un profesor"?
    – Andy
    Oct 27, 2017 at 0:45
  • Also I don't really understand how the fact that "santo/a" can be an adjective is relevant to this case, because it's not being used as an adjective in any of these examples.
    – Andy
    Oct 27, 2017 at 0:53
  • I agree that "santa" in the "Madre Teresa" example is closer to being a noun than an adjective, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of its being an adjective. It is clearly an adjective in this other sentence, where it is modified by an adverb: "Mi esposo no es muy santo que digamos." My claim is that "ser un santo" is a set phrase, and that in "ser santo" the word in question may be an adjective.
    – Gustavson
    Oct 27, 2017 at 1:44
  • Interesting idea. I think your answer would be better if you removed the whole first part about adj. vs. noun. Oct 27, 2017 at 3:35
  • @aparente001 Thank you for your suggestion, but I prefer to keep an open mind, and to encourage others to do the same thing. The noun-adjective contrast may not be crucial, but does have something to do with the use or non-use of the article. Compare: Es un santurrón (noun) vs Es muy santurrón (adjective). This does not happen with other nouns: ? Es muy doctor (usually considered wrong, unless we mean "doctor-like", which would be rather exceptional). In these cases, when saying "Es doctor" doctor will be interpreted as a noun, not as an adjective, in spite of the absence of the article.
    – Gustavson
    Oct 27, 2017 at 10:15

In the DLE there is this meaning:

uno, na 3. art. indet. Indica que lo denotado por el nombre o el grupo nominal al que precede no designa un individuo particular, sino un tipo. Un político debería tener una conducta ejemplar.

As the explanation says, "uno" (shortened as "un" before singular masculin sustantive) designates not a particular individual but a type when it's before a name. So in your example the meaning is that the husband thinks he belongs to the category "saint".

  • So would "un político está aquí" be idiomatic Spanish? Because in that case "un" does not designate a type, but rather a particular individual.
    – Andy
    Oct 27, 2017 at 0:50
  • @Andy that would be one of the others meanings of "un". In the same link that I provided you, you can find the first meaning (as indefinite article): "1. art. indet. Indica que lo designado por el nombre o el grupo nominal al que precede se refiere a entidades no consabidas por los interlocutores. Vieron una montaña a lo lejos. Has tenido una idea estupenda." Oct 27, 2017 at 13:11

This answer will be a variant of the second half of Gustavson's answer. Consider:

  1. Rafael es experto en resolver este tipo de ecuaciones diferenciales.

  2. Rafael, ¡eres un experto en resolver estas ecuaciones! ¡Gracias!

  3. Rafael es el experto en resolver este tipo de ecuaciones diferenciales.

I could make similar examples with ser heroe, ser santo, etc.

I think what's going on here is that in (1), I'm stating an incontrovertible fact, and in (2), I'm stating an opinion. In other words, in (1), everyone in the group recognizes Rafael as an expert in this area; in (2), when thanking Rafael and expressing my admiration, I declare him an expert.

In (3), the implication is that there is one differential equation expert in the group, and it is Rafael.

I know you didn't ask about (3) but I wanted to include it for completeness.

I'll draw the parallels with santo now.

(1) Bueno, claro que José Luis fue el que logró resolver este conflicto. Si el tipo es santo, ni más ni menos.

(2) José Luis se cree un santo. Bueno, estoy de acuerdo que hizo una gran aportación, pero no llega a santo, ¿te imaginas que un santo se declarara santo? Interestingly, this example starts out like Rafael#1 but then veers into Rafael#2 in two places.

(3) El santo en esta historia fue, sin duda, José Luis. Y claro, no ha recibido reconocimiento alguno [de la compañía] por sus aportaciones.

Footnote: I will translate my idioms in (1) for Spanish learners: "Si el tipo es santo, ni más ni menos" means After all, the guy is a saint, no two ways about it.

  • Does "Si el tipo es santo" literally mean "if the guy is a saint" or "yes the guy is a saint"? And does declarar require an adjective?
    – Andy
    Oct 28, 2017 at 12:32
  • @Andy - No. Does the footnote at the bottom help? If not, I'll try to make it clearer. // Hmm. I think in the "declarada santa" example santa is a noun but there are people on this site who know formal grammar much better than I do. I guess in general I would say that functionally, nothing requires an adjective. Aren't adjectives like icing on the cake? Oct 28, 2017 at 12:38

when you use "un santo", santo is a noun. When you use "santo", it is an adjective.

So you are saying that your husband is one of the saints. (by using "un"). If you don't use "un" you are only asserting his quality of holiness. (but perhaps he has not been "canonized" by the church)

As you see the meaning is not the same (although related)

by the way, spanish speaking people wonder why english speakers erase so many articles. For example "Going home"... wha? why not "going to THE home"... (I know, I am not asking... just telling you what I felt the first time I learned that expression)

  • Ironically since I learned "casa" as "house" first, I thought "Estoy en casa" sounds weird because we wouldn't say "I'm at house", we would say "I'm at MY house". But "I'm at home" is idiomatic :)
    – Andy
    Oct 28, 2017 at 12:25
  • But in the "Madre Teresa ... pronto será santa" case would you hear it as an adjective or a noun? Because in that case it obviously means she will become a saint rather than become holy.
    – Andy
    Oct 28, 2017 at 12:28
  • @Andy - Maybe it would help to keep this paradigm in mind: "Soy profesor. Soy estudiante. Soy padre de familia. Soy ama de casa." JFK said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" but if he had been in Latin America, he would have said, "Yo soy mexicano." I didn't learn any Spanish until my early twenties and then through immersion I became a transplant. I think the best way to become fluent is by learning patterns. I have two ears -- one judges what sounds right in English, one judges what sounds right in Spanish. Oct 28, 2017 at 12:43

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