El vs Lo as a Neuter Definite Article in Spanish

What’s the difference between ‘el desconocido’ and ‘lo desconocido’? Why do we say ‘lo mismo’ and also ‘el mismo’, depending on the occasion? It’s easy to mistake ‘el’ for ‘lo ’in Spanish, but hopefully we’ll clear things up for you!

What are the articles ‘el’ and ‘la’?

These are definite articles that we use before nouns and that can be translated to English as “the”. ‘El’ is the singular masculine form, while ‘la’ is the singular feminine. So when we say ‘el pan (masc noun.)’, we’re saying ‘the bread’ - and when we say ‘la onda (fem. noun)’, we’re saying ‘the wave’. There are plural forms as well, but since those don’t cause as much confusion, we’ll avoid them for the purposes of this article.

Why do we sometimes use ‘lo’?

The ‘lo’ can also be  used as definite article before adjectives, which makes them abstract nouns, before an action or a set of abstract things. What generates confusion to English-speakers is that they would sometimes use ‘the’ in this circumstance as well. For example, ‘lo importante’ could be translated as ‘the important [thing]. The same happens when we use other adjectives, such as ‘lo bueno’ (the good [thing]) or ‘lo malo’ (the bad [thing]).

But let’s explore this nuance a bit further. Take the word ‘desconocido’, for example, which means ‘unknown’. When we talk about the ‘lo desconocido’, it expresses an abstract idea - the big unknown. However, when we say ‘el desconocido’, we’re referring to a person whom we don’t know, ‘the stranger’.

Now, let’s look at another example: ‘lo mismo’ vs ‘el mismo’. Take the sentence ‘Cláudia y yo llevamos el mismo vestido.’ It means that we’re both wearing the same dress; it’s very specific. On the other hand, if someone asks me ‘¿Qué hiciste ayer?’ (What did you do yesterday?), I can reply ‘Lo mismo de siempre’ (The same thing as always). In this case, ‘lo’ is referring to an abstract set of actions.

Think you’ve cracked it? Let’s look at another question. ¿Qué vino compraste ayer? (Which wine did you buy yesterday?). The correct answer in this case would be ‘El mismo de siempre’, because we’re not referring to an action or an abstract set of things - it’s wine, a noun, which is a specific thing mentioned in the question.

Final example: ¿Con qué profesor hablaste? (With which teacher did you talk to?). The correct answer would again be ‘El mismo de siempre’, because we’re referring to a person.

Are you still struggling with ‘el’ vs ‘lo’? Let us know your doubts in the comment section below and we’ll reply as soon as possible! Meanwhile, why don’t you check out our newest schedule for Spanish lessons online?