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There are collocations like

  • camino de tierra
  • gafas de sol
  • día de trabajo
  • museo de antropología
  • museo de arte
  • escuela de idiomas
  • casa de papel
  • villancico de navidad

but also others like

  • estado del arte
  • dirección del trabajo
  • museo del oro
  • Museo del Aire
  • escuela de la vida
  • Escuela de la Calle
  • casa del libro

Is there any consistent rule for where to use the definite article in this type of collocations, and where not?

When I myself started searching for such a rule, my first impression was that "whenever I can replace it by an adjective, it is without article". But later I found a lot of aparent counter-examples :(

1
  • Some can change their meaning depending on how you use them. día de trabajo is a workday but "Día del trabajo" would be Labor Day.....And yes, I know the formal term is Día del trabajador.....So, it's tricky and one would have to write a book about it.
    – Lambie
    Apr 9 at 16:16
2

Some rules are:

I. noun + de + noun:

  1. When talking about the composition of something (made of). Casa de papel.
  2. Talking about the content of something. Vaso de agua.
  3. An adjective that describes the noun. Día de trabajo.

II. noun + del + noun or noun + de + la + noun:

Usually used when talking about museums or organizations because the second noun refers to the purpose of the organization, the thing to which is dedicated the museum or the organization. "del" is used for masculine nouns that are referred to with "el" and "de la" is used with feminine nouns that are referred to with "la". Museo del transporte, museo del oro, casa de la moneda, casa del pueblo, ministerio de la familia, ministerio del transporte.

However this rule is not a fixed rule. In some countries it is said: "Ministerio de Cultura" and in some countries it is said: "Ministerio de la Cultura". Both are correct.

Addition after reading the comments from @Lambie:

A general rule would be that the article is added to the preposition "de" when the meaning is dedication to something (purpose or homage). This explains the change of meaning in the example cited by Lambie in one comment: in "día de trabajo" (working day) "trabajo" functions as an adjective that modifies the noun but in "día del trabajo" (Labor day) "trabajo" is the concept to which is dedicated the day. This is why the article (el or la) is commonly used for organizations or museums. This is not a fixed rule as commented above as in the case of the ministries. The preposition in some cases is enough to indicate purpose.

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  • Best explanation here and to the point. You only left out the change in meaning that can occur between del/de la or de.
    – Lambie
    Apr 9 at 17:10
5

This is a hard question and I'm not sure members will agree with my reply, but I think it could at least serve as a starting point to develop more and better rules.

There are always some idiomatic issues that will shake the foundations of any rule, but, in principle, I'd say that the rule that determines whether the noun functioning as object to a preposition should take an article or not is the same that applies to nouns in general:

  1. Nouns used in a generic way, whether singular or plural, will not take the article. Specifically, singular noncount nouns don't take an article when they refer to a material.

  2. Nouns used in a specific way, or nouns which always take the definite article, will take the article within a prepositional phrase, unless they are used to typify.

  3. There are exceptions to the rule, for example: nouns under (2) will not take the article when used to typify.

1 camino de tierra ("tierra" here refers to a material)

1 escuela de idiomas ("idiomas" is used generically)

1 casa de papel ("papel" is the material)

2 estado del arte ("el arte" is a specific activity)

2 dirección del trabajo ("el trabajo" refers to somebody's job; the adjective "laboral" would sound more general)

2 museo del oro (if we said "museo de oro", "oro" would be the material the entire museum is made of)

2 Museo del Aire (if we said "museo de aire", it would seem that the museum is ethereal)

2 escuela de la vida (we also have "escuela de vida" to mean a type of learning based on life experiences)

2 Escuela de la Calle ("de calle" is only used to typify, for example "ropa de calle", meaning clothes to go out, not to stay home)

2 casa del libro (the count noun "libro" always takes an article)

3 día de trabajo ("de trabajo" is used to typify, as opposed to "descanso" or "vacaciones", being equivalent to the adjective "laboral")

3 museo de antropología ("de antropología" is used to typify, being equivalent to the adjective "antropológico")

3 museo de arte ("arte" is used to typify, being equivalent to the adjective "artístico")

3 gafas de sol (we say "el sol" but "de sol" indicates a type)

3 villancico de navidad (here "de navidad" is used to typify, meaning "navideño")

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  • Hmm, it sounds well constructed, but... :) In many cases the explanation is kind of (after)constructed, like in the "Museo de arte" - I do not feel it as the same as "artistico" - it is not "artistic museum", it is "museum of art". I would buy it for the case of "obra de arte" = "obra artistica", but not for the museum. Also Dirección del Trabajo (es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direcci%C3%B3n_del_Trabajo_de_Chile) clearly does not refer to someone's job, but does have the meaning of "laboral". Apr 7 at 21:37
  • @HonzaZidek You are right. I just tried to come up with some simple rules but the truth is that it often comes down to a per-case decision. For example, we do say Dirección del Trabajo but we also say Ministerio de Trabajo. And we say Dirección and Ministerio de Economía, not "de la Economía". Where you wrote "dirección del trabajo", I took it to mean "work address". As to "museo de arte", I know that "artistico" means something else, but my point was that an adjective was often equivalent to "de + noun", for example: museo de arqueología = museo arqueológico.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 8 at 1:05
  • Well, my first impression when I started searching for a "rule" was the same, that "whenever I can replace it by an adjective, it is without article". But later I found a lot of aparent counter-examples :( Apr 8 at 10:18
  • @HonzaZidek Well, it is kind of a rule and, as every rule, there are always exceptions :)
    – Gustavson
    Apr 8 at 17:08
  • You confirmed my suspicion, both about the general rule and about tons of exceptions :) If no other surprising discovery comes, I tend to accept your answer soon :) Apr 9 at 19:18
0
  • gafas/lentes de sol(que sirve para)(for UV protection)

  • camino de tierra (composition)(substance)(surface)

  • día del trabajo (possession)(compounds)(workers' day)

  • días hábiles (que corresponde a) (business days, working days)

  • museo de antropología (actividad)(specialize in the display of archeological artifacts/it is dedicated to the display of..)

  • museo de arte/galería de arte (actividad)(intended for art exhibitions)

  • museo dedicado al arte (actividad)

  • museo del oro (que cuenta con) (colombia)

  • dirección del trabajo (labour office) (public service which has legal status)(chile)

  • estado del arte(anglicismo)(state-of-the-art = de última generación, the best in the specified field)

  • escuela de idiomas (actividad)(it is dedicated to teaching)

  • casa de papel(composition)(substance)

  • villancicos de navidad(on christmas day/at christmas)

  • museo del aire = museo de aeronáutica

  • escuela de vida(treatment center)(rehab center)

  • escuela de la vida/de la calle(coloquial)(of life's experiences)

  • casadellibro (nombre propio de librería)

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  • 1
    The OP asked for a consistent rule but I am struggling to see it here.
    – mdewey
    Apr 7 at 12:16
  • Although there are some rules about article usage, in cases like this the general rules don't apply because sometimes they are unpredictable in Spanish.
    – cocteau
    Apr 7 at 22:04
  • Could you sort out your examples by (rather not many :) ) "classes of usage"? And maybe show which class is more often with article and which one is without? Your current format does not make easy to see the pattern. Apr 8 at 10:35
  • día de trabajo, workday; día del trabajo, labor day
    – Lambie
    Apr 9 at 20:13
  • It would take a very long time to list all the cases, maybe I'll do that later. I'll just add that to the list: Dirección del trabajo = Department of Labour, which is subject to the supervision of the Ministry of Labour.
    – cocteau
    Apr 10 at 14:03

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