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I've been teaching myself Spanish for a while now and am getting ok but I am confused by the use of el, la, los and las. I know that they are used to give gender and number. That's no problem. What I have issue with is when they are used in a sentence that they seem out of place in. A basic example would be "me gusta LA cena". To me this reads "I like THE dinner", which is obviously not great in English. Am I to take it that we use el, la etc when we are using the noun? If this is that case then how do I know when the speaker is just using the noun and when they actually want the word "The"? Is this just to be gleamed from the context?

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    Spanish speakers often have trouble knowing when to omit the article in English. – MikMik Sep 9 '14 at 6:52
  • Me gusta la cena means, quite literally, Dinner gives me pleasure. Nevermind that it's missing it's emphasis. A mi me gusta ... – dockeryZ Sep 11 '14 at 4:57
  • It doesn't means "dinner gives me pleasure" at all! And you can perfectly omit "A mí", which no native speaker would say because sounds too redundant and doesn't add emphasis at all, unless you are reacting to somebody who just said he doesn't like it. Me gusta la cena means I like dinner. – Quarkex Sep 13 '14 at 16:15
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Gavin,

I am also a beginner learner of Spanish, and I also have been mystified about the use of el, la, los and las. I have come to the conclusion that they are no simple rules to determine when they need to be used, and when not; otherwise they would be in every beginners textbook, wouldn't they?

This is what I have surmised, picking up morsels of information from various sources. This is my summary, so unlikely to be correct, but hopefully it will prompt more knowledgable responses:

  • el, la, los and las are called definite articles. The rules for use in Spanish are different to those in English. In Spanish they will be used more often than in English.

  • They are used in front of all abstract nouns and when the noun refers to something in general, rather than something in particular:

    El inglés no es fácil. (English is not easy). Me gusta el pescado ( I like fish)

  • They are not used when the noun is an uncountable noun (uncountable noun?? It's enough to make one's head spin. A rule I find useful: if the words any or some could be inserted in English, then it's likely to be an uncountable noun):

    • Hay gente que no come carne (There are (some) people who do not eat (any) meat)
    • Necesito leche y huevos para el postre (I need milk and eggs for the desert)
  • Exactly as in English, they are used when we know something exists, or has already been mentioned:

    • Los empleados de esta oficina trabajan muy poco (The employees in this office work very little)
    • He comprado la leche y los huevos (I have bought the milk and the eggs {which earlier you told me you needed})
  • There are lots of exceptions. In no particular order:

    • They are not used after tener and saber
    • They are not used with people's names, continents, countries and cities (there are exceptions to this exception).
    • Before most titles when speaking about someone; but not if speaking directly to them. [This rule is mentioned in most beginners textbooks].
    • Sometimes they are not used after the proposition 'en'; example: No hablar en clase (No talking in the class).

Well, this is my best effort. Hopefully it is, on balance, more useful than confusing.

Kind regards, PhilW

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    There are exceptions to almost every single thing here, but they are not going to be as commonly used by beginners. Definitely a good set of recommendations for beginning Spanish. If it makes you feel better, the Royal Spanish Academy spends nearly 50-100 pages describing the ins and outs of when to use them, and even then still has to admit at some points that "Well, some words are just special" and that other times, the differences are geographical/temporal and thereby not subject to any specific rule other than the tyranny of the masses :) – user0721090601 Sep 8 '14 at 14:47
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Well, in the case of "Me gusta la cena", you've fallen into a common trap of thinking of gustar as meaning to like. In realty, it means to be pleasing. That's why the verb is conjugated in the third-person singular gusta rather than first-person singular gusto.

In Spanish, for a number of reasons that I won't get into for fear of making things more confusing than less, a subject must have some sort of determiner attached to it. For cena that could be an article like una or la; a quantifier like toda, mucha, or poca (normally in plural though); a demonstrative like esta, esa or aquella; etc.

In English, we can omit this when we speak about things generally. Compare "I like dinner" (the meal) to "I like [ the | a | this | that | yon | some ] dinner". In Spanish you can too — but only when the noun is an object.1 As subject, the determiner is mandatory, and when the general sense is meant, you use the definite article.

Compare these two English sentences using a different gustar construction (very formal and literary):

  • I like dinner. (in general)
    • Me gusta la cena.
    • Gusto de cenas.
  • I like the dinner. (this one here)
    • Me gusta la cena.
    • Gusto de la cena.

Notice how as an object (in this case, of a preposition), the articles more or less work as expected.2 But as a subject, the distinction isn't possible and both sentences are identical.


1. Technically, passive sentences are an exception — the precise restriction is specific to the subjects of active voice sentences. The subject of a passive voice sentence is the object of the active voice, and as such it can have (but doesn't require having) the article omitted if and only if it would have been so omitted in the active voice formulation.

2. Even given this, in some cases you may still hear people use an article though it's not strictly needed.

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  • @Neo Huh? How is "gusta" conjugated in first person? me is a first-person object pronoun, but it is not the subject. gustar in first person is gusto, and there is nothing wrong with gusto de (algo) — check the entry 5 for gustar in the DRAE and entry 1.b. in the DPD for the same. gusto is also a noun, but I've never heard of it being used as a participle. – user0721090601 Sep 7 '14 at 23:51
  • I don't think the use of the article has anything to do with the question. Perhaps grammatically the definite article is required in that case, but in the case of "Yo amo la cena" the definite article is also used, and I would say preferred (or am I wrong?). Spanish simply uses definite articles a lot more than English (perhaps this is explained by the "number of reasons that [you] won't get into") – Flimzy Sep 8 '14 at 0:28
  • @Flimzy The article is just a symptom of the difference :) amar may not be the example best verb — I can't think of a determinerless example with the verb, names/pronouns excepting. – user0721090601 Sep 8 '14 at 0:47
  • Maybe try playing around with the verb comprar compro manzanas vs compro las manzanas or even matar: mato moscas, mato las moscas. The latter one can show how easy Spanish will fall back to specificity. If you ask me what I do all afternoon, I'm most likely killing the flies at some specified location, so there's a sort of implied en mi casa or en el curro that prevents the generic care. But ¿Qué hace un matamoscas? Pues, mata moscas is totally general. – user0721090601 Sep 8 '14 at 0:48
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    @Gorpik oh trust me, I know. I didn't say I'd recommend saying it after all haha – user0721090601 Sep 10 '14 at 22:54
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Your example sentence can be written two ways

  1. A MI ME GUSTA LA CENA

  2. LA CENA ME GUSTA A MI

In both sentences, CENA is the subject.

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