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Does spanish use l' like French?

In standard Spanish, people always write la before feminine words beginning with a vowel: la obra, la uva etc. If the vowel is a stressed a, they generally write and say el: el agua, el arma, el área etc.

When the word after la begins with an unstressed 'a', in normal speech, one of the as is elided in pronunciation. In other words la alfombra is generally pronounced l'alfombra, la antigüedad is generally pronounced l'antigüedad etc.

How do you tell whether to use el or la?

The definite article in Spanish (the word that generally translates English "the") depends on the gender of the noun. All nouns in Spanish are generally either masculine or feminine. In general:

  • certain endings strongly dictate the gender of a noun (e.g. nouns ending in -ión are practically always feminine; those ending in -or are practically always masculine);
  • nouns that refer to people— and certain common animalstend to follow the gender of the person/animal they refer to;
  • there are a few arbitrary exceptions.

To choose between el and la, the first stage is to determine the gender of the noun. Then, the general rule is:

  • use el with masculine nouns;
  • use la with feminine nouns;
  • use el immediately before feminine nouns that begin with a stressed 'a' vowel (el agua).

The last item is the one that it's easy to forget. There are a very small number of other exceptions, some of which aren't widely agreed upon.

So the question of whether to use el or la essentially boils down to: how do you guess the gender of a Spanish noun?

Basic gender rules

The following are the most common patterns for telling whether a Spanish noun is masculine or feminine, and therefore whether to use el or la. Note that rules referring to endings typically apply to words of more than one syllable1. So for example, whilst words ending in -ie are generally feminine, the word pie (="foot") is masculine.

Words ending...GenderExample
-oMasculineel niño
the boy
-aFemininela niña
the girl
-istaFollows the gender of the personel/la pianista
the male/female pianist
-iónFemininela estación
the station
-ad, -udFemininela verdad
the truth
la actitud
the attitude
Other nouns ending in a consonantMasculineel color
the colour
-ajeMasculineel equipaje
the luggage
-anteUsually masculine unless referring to a femaleel desodorante
the deodorant
la cantante
the (female) singer
-ieFemininela serie
the series
-e(Gender of the person if referring to a person, else check dictionary)el traste
the dish/piece of junk
la frente
the forehead
Short forms of wordsFollow the pattern of the "full" wordla foto(grafía)
the photo(graph)
la moto(cicleta)
the motorbike
Where another obvious noun representing the "category" is implied (e.g. "río", "coche", "vino", "equipo")2Follow the gender of the implied "category" nounIn all these examples, the noun in brackets is generally removed, but the phrase keeps its gender:
el (equipo) Madrid
Madrid (the football team)
el (Monte) Everest
(Mount) Everest
el (coche) Mercedes rojo
the red Mercedes
la (montaña) Malinche
Malinche (name of a mountain in Mexico)

1. Strictly speaking, they tend to apply when the given ending is a derivational suffix (an ending used to derive one word from another). But sometimes it's difficult to tell whether the ending is derivational or not, and "more than one syllable" is usually a good enough approximation.
2. There are some exceptions or cases of disagreement or geographical variation. For example, Butt & Benjamin give el champaña, but in Mexico at least, speakers appear to make champaña feminine (even referring to the drink), although the alternative el champán is always masculine.

Common exceptions

There are various exceptions to the above patterns, but the following are some of the most common:

el día, el mediodía
the day, (the) midday
la mano
the hand
el mapa
the map
el panda
the panda
la piel
the skin
Words ending in -ma that are the same or similar to English:
el poema, el sistema
the poem, the system
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