El vs. La: A Guide to Your Spanish Nouns

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Introduction

Is it a girl or a boy?

Disregarding our societal efforts to do away with gender norms, we’re going to bring up the age-old question of when to use el vs. la. In Spanish, the isn’t simply the. There’s a girl the (la) and a boy the (el).

For the most part, it’s pretty straightforward. El is masculine and accompanies words referring to males, or words that end in -o, -ma, and most consonants. When there is more than one masculine noun, or a mixed group of masculine and feminine nouns, los is used as its plural.

La is feminine and usually goes with words referring to females, or words that end in -a, -d, -n, and -z. Its plural is las.

Okay, so masculine for boys and feminine for girls, right?
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...No. At least not all the time.
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The Eight Commandments

Well, first let’s start with the Eight Commandments of the Spanish the. Columbus may or may not have brought them over to the Americas with him in 1492.

  1. Thou shalt use el and los for living people or animals that end in -o and -os, respectively. (Example: el perro, los perros)
  2. Thou shalt use la and las for living people or animals that end in -a and -as, respectively. (Example: la rata, las ratas)
  3. Thou shalt use los when referring to a group of mixed gender nouns. (Example: los niños)
  4. Thou shalt be aware of professions that maintain the same form for both male and female and use el and la accordingly. (Example: el/la atleta)
  5. Thou shalt make masculine nouns that end in consonants feminine by adding a to the end of the masculine form and using the article la. (Example: el señor, la señora)
  6. Thou shalt use la for words that end in -n, -d, -z, -umbre. (Example: la solución)
  7. Thou shalt use el for words that end in -ma. (Example: el sistema)
  8. Thou shalt memorize the exceptions to the commandments above. (See examples below.)

Thank you, old Spanish king from the 13th century, for your rules and exceptions that have only contributed to the challenges of mastering this beautiful language.
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Let us make this a little easier to understand:
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So as you can see, all roads seem to end in the same place – the land of exceptions. Who thought of this land? Where is this place? What is this place? Do they have free food?

"A whole new wooooorld...."
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Fortunately, we have a list of common exceptions to memorize! (You may want to grab a snack before taking a good look at this.)

Common exceptions that use la:

-o

Spanish Word English Translation
la foto photo
la mano hand
la radio the radio
la moto the motorcycle

-e

Spanish Word English Translation
la llave the key
la calle the street
la fiebre the fever
la fe the faith
la madre the mother
la serpiente the snake

consonants that aren't -d nor -z

Spanish Word English Translation
la miel the honey
la sal the salt
la piel the skin
la flor the flower

Common exceptions that use el:

-a

Spanish Word English Translation
el idioma the language
el mapa the map
el problema the problem
el sistema the system
el día the day

-d

Spanish Word English Translation
el huésped the guest
el ataúd the coffin
el césped the lawn

-z

Spanish Word English Translation
el arroz the rice
el pez the fish
el lápiz the pencil
el maíz the corn
el disfraz the costume

-ión
(You use el for these words when the -ion indicates a superlative.)

Spanish Word English Translation
el notición the bombshell
el sentención the rigorous sentence
el roción the spray

How in the world am I supposed to remember all of these?

We feel ya. The more you see these exceptions in your reading, and the more you speak and write them, the more familiar you’ll be with them. It just takes consistent practice!
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What’s great about articles is that they are everywhere. You’ll see them on signs, on TV, in the newspaper, in movies, in songs, and more!


Here’s a little tune to get you started…

Now go gender those nouns!


For additional information, and a practice quiz, refer to this article.


Image Citations:

1.) https://endless-sphere.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=42785&p=667278

2.) http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~terfan/strugglebus/pennapps2013f/

3.) http://blogs.disney.com/oh-my-disney/2016/01/22/15-most-powerful-disney-song-lyrics-according-to-you/

4.) https://www.syracuseculturalworkers.com/products/postcard-s-se-puede-rosie-the-riveter

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