Spanish determiners

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The Spanish language uses determiners in a similar way to English. The main difference is that they are modified by gender (masculine/feminine).

Demonstrative determiners[edit]

The Spanish has three kinds of demonstrative, whose use typically depends on the distance (physical or metaphorical) between the speaker and the described entity, or sometimes it depends on the proximity to the 3 grammatical persons.

Demonstratives Near Middle Far
Masculine singular este ese aquel
Masculine plural estos esos aquellos
Feminine singular esta esa aquella
Feminine plural estas esas aquellas

English also used to have a three-way system: "this hill (here)", "that hill (there)" or "yon hill (yonder)" — in Spanish, "esta colina", "esa colina", "aquella colina". Standard English lost the third level, so that the "that, there" series covers the ground of "yon, yonder".

Este usually refers to something near the speaker (the first person). Ese usually refers to something nearer the listener (the second person). Aquel usually refers to something away from both the speaker and the listener.

The demonstrative determiners can also be used as pronouns, with the addition of the neutral singular forms esto, eso, aquello.

A similar three-way system of demonstratives is found in Portuguese as well as Slavic languages, Japanese and Turkish.


Definite article[edit]

The definite article in Spanish, corresponding to "the", is el. It inflects for gender and number as follows:

  • el hombre = "[the] man"
  • los hombres = "[the] men"
  • la mujer = "[the] woman"
  • las mujeres = "[the] women"

The usually masculine form el is used instead of la before feminine nouns that begin with a stressed a sound:

  • el águila (pequeña) = "the (small) eagle"
  • el agua (fresca) = "the (fresh) water"
  • el hacha (afilada) = "the (sharp) axe"

La is used, however, when el would imply a masculine noun:

  • la ácrata (because el ácrata would be a male anarchist)
  • la árabe (because el árabe would be a male Arab, or the Arabic language)

El is never used, however, before feminine adjectives that begin with a stressed a:

  • la alta montaña = "the high mountain"
  • la ancha calle = "the wide street"

Azúcar is a very special case. Its a- is unstressed, and yet it usually takes el even when feminine; in addition, azúcar can be of both genders in Spanish (other words with double gender are sal (salt), mar (sea) and sartén (frying pan)):

  • el azúcar refinada (el azúcar refinado and la azúcar refinada are also acceptable)

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 la is.

There is also a "neuter article" that is used before adjectives and makes them work like nouns:

  • lo bueno = "the good, what is good"
  • lo importante = "the important thing"
  • lo indefinible = "the indefinable"
  • lo desconocido = "the unknown"

Indefinite article[edit]

The indefinite article in Spanish, corresponding to "a/an", is un. It inflects for gender and number as follows:

  • un hombre = "a man"
  • unos hombres = "some men"
  • una mujer = "a woman"
  • unas mujeres = "some women"

Near synonyms of unos include unos cuantos, algunos and unos pocos.

The same rules that apply to the use of feminine el apply to una and un:

  • un ala = "a wing"
  • una árabe = "a female Arab"
  • una alta montaña = "a high mountain"

As in English, the plural indefinite article is not always required:

  • Hay [unas] cosas en la mesa = "There are [some] things on the table"

Possessive determiners[edit]

These are often known as possessive or genitive determiners. They are used before the noun they possess (and before the rest of the whole noun phrase, for example when an adjective precedes the noun). They agree in number with the noun, and some of them in gender, too.

  • 1st person singular (yo): mi(s)
  • 2nd person singular (): tu(s)
  • 3rd person singular (él, ella): su(s)
  • 1st person plural (nosotros/as): nuestro/a(s)
  • 2nd person plural(vosotros/as): vuestro/a(s)
  • 3rd person plural (ellos/as): su(s)

Note the following:

  • There is no distinction according to the number (or gender) of possessors for the third person possessives (i.e. between "his/her/its" and "their").
  • The possessive for usted and ustedes is su(s) as for other third-person pronouns. The ambiguity that this causes (especially considering that su(s) already covers "his", "her", "its" and "their") can be allieviated by treating usted(es) as a noun and thereby saying la casa de ustedes instead of su casa. It is also possible to disambiguate by saying la casa de él or la casa de ella, etc.

Dialectal variation:

  • The archaic pronoun vos has the possessive form vuestro, just like vosotros does. However, in modern dialectal voseo, tu is the possessive corresponding to vos. Therefore, an Argentinian would say Che, decime tu dirección and never decime vuestra dirección or dime tu dirección.
  • Dialectally, usted/ustedes may replace tú/vosotros without any intention to be formal. The corresponding possessive determiner su(s) is used. Therefore, a Colombian may say Hijo, enséñeme sus deberes instead of Hijo, enséñame tus deberes ("Son, show me your homework").

Combining demonstratives and possessives[edit]

Demonstrative pronouns can be combined with possessives as follows:

  • Esta nuestra tierra = "This Earth of ours"
  • Este mi amor = "This love of mine"

Strictly speaking, the presence of the first determiner means that the possessive must be interpreted as an adjective rather than a determiner. Note however that the long adjectival form (mío, tuyo, suyo, etc.), which is identical to the corresponding possessive pronoun, is not used in this construction, which is rather uncommon.

It is also possible to use the long adjectival form. In this case, it goes after the noun:

  • Esta tierra nuestra = "This Earth of ours"
  • Este amor mío = "This love of mine"

Miscellaneous determiners[edit]

There are many more words that can be used as determiners in Spanish. They mostly end in -o and have the usual four forms (-o, -a, -os, -as) to agree with their noun.

  • ¡Otra cerveza, por favor! = "Another beer, please!"
  • Mucha gente pasa por aquí = "Many people pass through here"
  • No hay tanta gente como en verano = "There are not as many people as in summer"
  • Ciertos vinos son muy dulces = "Certain wines are very sweet"
  • He salido con varias chicas = "I have gone out with several girls"

External links[edit]