How Articles Can Help
So far, all these rules may have left you dismayed. Do you really have to keep all those noun endings in mind just to establish the gender? Well, here is where the articles can help. Once you know the article, you can figure out whether the noun is feminine or masculine, singular or plural. Just as in English, Spanish articles come in two categories: definite and indefinite.
Think of the definite article as one pointing to a concrete noun. In English, we've only got one: “the.” In Spanish, you have four forms, depending on the noun's gender and number (one or more than one).
Definite Article (“The”)
With the exception of proper names, Spanish articles are employed liberally with most nouns, even in places where the translation into English would drop them. And please don't forget to keep conjugating (or matching) your articles and your nouns—they must always match in gender and number.
When you learn a new noun, use the following strategy: Rather than making up mnemonic devices or memorizing complicated rules, memorize nouns with la or el before the singular form—it's the easiest way to keep track of their grammatical gender. For example, just as long as you remember that “the house” is la casa, you will know that this noun is feminine.
Exceptions to the Rule
How a word is stressed plays a significant role in determining the article used with it, so the exception rule goes as follows: A masculine article is always used before the singular form of a word beginning with a stressed a or ha. Take a look at some examples in the following table.
Feminine Nouns That Take On Masculine Article in the Singular
An Aside on Prepositions
Here is another important point to remember—when the definite article follows prepositions a or de, they form a contraction: a + el=al; de + el = del. Try pronouncing a el quickly and then switch to al; you'll quickly see why Spanish speakers formed this contraction: It's a lot easier and faster to pronounce. And the same goes for the transformation from de el to del.
A Matter of Meaning
Some nouns have both a masculine form and a feminine one—which means the meaning differs based on what article it travels with. For example, take the word capital. Your first guess should be that it's masculine, and it can be: el capital means “capital” (as in, a sum of money, an economic term). But—surprise, surprise!—there's also a feminine noun capital, with an entirely different meaning. La capital is a capital of a country. And the two terms are not interchangeable.
Nouns That Rely on Articles for Meaning
But don't forget, in addition to the four definite article forms, Spanish also boasts four matching indefinite articles. In English, there's really only one, “a,” though it is modified to “an” before any word that begins with a vowel (“a book,” but “an apple”), and it is only used with singular nouns (no such thing as “a books,” right?). In Spanish, you have un or una (depending on the gender of the noun) as equivalents to “a” or “an,” and the indefinite articles unos and unas when the nouns are plural—you might think of these articles as meaning “some.”
Note that in Spanish, uno means “one” (1) and unos and unas are the masculine and feminine versions of “some.” When applying a Spanish “one” to a masculine noun, uno loses its final vowel. For example, un libro could be translated as “one book” or “a book,” depending on context.
Indefinite Articles (“A,” “An,” or “Some”)