Difference Between ”el” and ”la” In Spanish Language

In the Spanish language, “el” and “la” are both definite articles, which means they are used to indicate gender and number (singular or plural) of nouns. An interesting thing about Spanish is the fact that words have gender. A word is considered male or female, depending on what the word refers to and how it ends.

Spanish nouns are categorized into two genders: masculine and feminine. “El” is the masculine definite article and is used before masculine nouns, while “la” is the feminine definite article and is used before feminine nouns. ”El” is an equivalent of ”the” in English.

“El” is used before singular masculine nouns. For example, “el libro” (the book) or “el perro” (the dog). “La” is used before singular feminine nouns. For example, “la casa” (the house) or “la mesa” (the table).

When referring to plural nouns, the definite articles also change. The masculine plural definite article is “los,” and the feminine plural definite article is “las.” For instance, “los libros” (the books) and “las casas” (the houses).

A general rule of thumb is if a word ends in -o, it is most likely masculine, and if a word ends in -a, it is most likely feminine. If the word is describing a female person, then the word is feminine and vice versa.

Another rule supersedes this, and that is when the feminine noun is singular and starts with a stressed a- or ha- sound, like the words agua, meaning water, or hambre, meaning hunger. The reason the definite article becomes el is mostly a matter of how it sounds to say la agua and la hambre and the clunkiness of the “double-a” sounds repeating. It sounds more definitive to say el agua and el hambre.

There is a similar grammar rule in English about the use of the “an” versus “a.” An English speaker would say, “an apple” instead of ” a apple.” The two repeating “double-a” sounds are too close to each other and sound too repetitive. The English rule states that “an,” which is an indefinite article modifying the noun, comes before nouns that have a vowel sound at the beginning of the word and “a” comes before consonant-starting nouns.

Feminine Words that Use the Masculine Article

Feminine NounsEnglish Translation
el aguathe water
el ama de casathe housewife
el asmaasthma
el arcathe ark
el hambrehunger
el hampathe underworld
el arpathe harp
el águilathe eagle

If you look at above examples, the substitution of el for la takes place when it comes immediately before words starting with an “a” sound. If the feminine noun is modified by adjectives that follow the noun in the sentence, the feminine noun retains the masculine article.

Feminine NounsEnglish Translation
la habilidadthe skill
la audienciathe audience
la asambleathe meeting

Other examples of feminine words

Nouns ending in certain suffixes are usually feminine. They include -ción (usually the equivalent of “-tion”), -sión-ía (usually the equivalent of “-y,” although not in the diminutive sense), -za-dad (often used like “-ty”), and -itis (“-itis”).

  • la nación (nation)
  • la intervención (intervention)
  • la hospitalización (hospitalization)
  • la ocasión (occasion)
  • la tensión (tension)
  • la economía (economy)
  • la taxonomía (taxonomy)
  • la probreza (poverty)
  • la felicidad (happiness)
  • la caridad (charity)
  • la mastitis (mastitis)
  • la meningitis (meningitis)

Other examples of masculine words

Nouns of Greek origin ending in -a, often -ma, are nearly always masculine. Most of these words have English cognates.

  • el problema (problem)
  • el drama (drama)
  • el poema (poem)
  • el tema (subject)

Nouns ending in an accented vowel are usually masculine.

  • el sofá (sofa)
  • el tabú (taboo)
  • el rubí (ruby)

Nouns with certain other endings are usually masculine. These include -aje (usually the equivalent of “-age”), -ambre, and -or. An exception is la flor (flower).

  • el coraje (courage)
  • el mensaje (message)
  • el espionaje (espionage)
  • el hambre (hunger)
  • el calambre (cramp)
  • el calor (heat)
  • el dolor (pain)
  • el interior (interior)

Key Takeaway

The definite articles “el” and “la” need to agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. This means that if you have a masculine singular noun, you use “el.” If you have a feminine singular noun, you use “la.” If you have masculine plural nouns, you use “los,” and for feminine plural nouns, you use “las.”