One of the most common and confusing uses of “lo” is when it works as a neutral article. We can immediately think about our Spanish teacher telling us that every noun has a gender, so when should we use a neutral article? Is there such a thing as a neutral noun in Spanish?
The answer is no, your teacher taught you well, but in Spanish it’s possible to turn adjectives and some adverbs into nouns through a process called nominalization. Since adjectives don't themselves have gender, when they are turned into generic nouns it’s impossible to define them using “la” or “el”, which is where “lo” comes to the rescue. Here are a couple of examples:
So when exactly do we use this neutral article?
Note: Paying attention to the examples and their English translations is going to be key for understanding this topic.
One of the main uses of “lo” is turning adjectives and adverbs into nouns. This process has a wide variety of uses, as we'll see.
In English, we often say "the good thing is that..." or "the hard part is..." to describe an aspect of something. In Spanish, we actually don't need to use a generic word like "thing" or "part" - we can just use lo! When used in this way, the adjective after lo is always singular and masculine.
Let’s see some examples:
We could also express something very similar to the above examples in the following way:
However, the adjectives in these two examples are missing emphasis and prominence in the sentence.
“Lo” can also be used with superlative sentences to emphasize adjectives:
“De + lo + adjective” is used when the noun we’re describing belongs to a specific group:
When adverbs are included in superlative sentences, “lo” becomes necessary.
“De lo más” can work with simpler sentences -sentences with no subordinate clause- as an equivalent of “muy”. Note that in this use case, adjectives match the gender and number -plural, singular- of the noun.
On the other hand, in sentences with a subordinate clause “lo + adjective” is used to express the extreme degree of a characteristic.
For these types of sentences, the use of absolute adjectives like máximo, mejor, peor or muerto is incorrect since they aren’t gradable.
Use “lo” with the following adjectives: necesario, básico, suficiente, justo, imprescindible y mínimo to indicate the minimum required for something.
When the adverbs bastante and suficientemente appear in these sentences, it’s necessary to indicate the referent like this: lo + bastante/ suficientemente + (como) para.
The type of comparative sentences that use “lo” are the ones where the comparison takes place between a person, a noun or an action and our own ideas or concepts about them, as shown in the examples:
De lo + necesario/ posible
De lo + participio
De lo que+ verbo conjugado
A concessive clause expresses an objection to what the main clause states. These are the ones used with “lo” in Spanish:
Con lo + adjective
Para lo + adjective + que
“Lo” is also used to turn participles of transitive verbs, such as decir, escribir, ver, etc., into nouns. This use of “lo” + participle is more commonly found in formal language such as literature, news, or formal speeches.
In our regular communication we prefer the relative pronoun “lo que”:
Friendly reminder: “De” indicates possession in Spanish. For example de Ana = "Anna’s"; de él = "his"; de Carlos = "Carlos’". It allows us to be more specific than using the more generic "suyo".
“De” means “about” as well, so it’s also possible to combine it with “lo” (lo de) in sentences that translate to “that thing about”. E.g.:
We can also use lo with indefinite pronouns like “otro” and “demás”.
We know this might be a lot to take in, so we created a section full of examples with English translations for every usage above so you can compare them and get a better understanding of the sentences that go with “lo” in Spanish. We've also got a new podcast, "Lo bueno", "lo malo" y "lo raro" de Latinoamérica, so you can work on your listening, apply your new knowledge of "lo" and learn about Latin America all at the same time!