By Nick Potter

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In this series we look at real-life examples of the most common mistakes in English by native Spanish lawyers. These and lots more invaluable tips are compiled in two e-books/paperbacks, here: 50 English Tips for Spanish Professionals and More English Tips for Spanish Professionals.

Experience and the experience

Let’s get things started! But not “the” things started.

Remember the difference between school and the school? Space and the space? History and the history? Interest rate swaps and the interest rate swaps?

The little word “the”, in grammar called the definite article, can make all the difference between good and bad English.

Question: Which ONE of A – H below is correct?

A The concept of “effective place of management” is not defined in the Spanish law
B We are experiencing the emergence of alternative financing formulas that improve the conditions for the borrowers
C The Spanish Companies Act provides that the companies with any registered goodwill shall, prior to distributing a dividend, annually allocate net profits equivalent to, at least, 5% of their goodwill to a restricted reserve until the value of such reserve totals the registered goodwill
D Half-year financial reports are now required to be subject, at least, to a limited review by the auditors
E The companies that have cash are concentrated in the tech industry, which has less need for capex
F A certificate evidencing whether the property owner is up-to-date with the payment of co-ownership costs
G The application of the article 44 of the Workers’ Statute entails the following
H The Spanish Government has issued several regulations affecting the renewable assets

 

■ Before you read the answer, remember:

The definite article the is the most frequent word in English.

So why do speakers of other languages use it too much, and wrongly?

Let’s look at the two main instances where the definite article is used in Spanish, but not in English.

One, remember, is names (and numerical references that are treated as names).

  • El Nottingham Forest es mejor que el Real Madrid / Nottingham Forest are better than Real Madrid (ahem)
  • El Ayuntamiento de Madrid / Madrid city council (or Madrid city hall)
  • El Real Decreto 202/2012, de 23 de enero / Royal Decree 202/2012 of 23 January 2012

The other big difference is between talking about specific things and things in general.

We are now entering a brave new world in which one day somebody somewhere will be able to hack your fridge. This is thanks to innovations in the “internet of things”; in Spanish, the “internet de las cosas”. The internet will be accessed by things in general, not just computers and handheld devices.

Spot the difference between these two pairs of sentences.

  • Experience is important / La experiencia es importante
  • She doesn’t want to repeat the experience / No quiere repetir la experiencia
  • As in Spanish, we use the definite article, “the”, to refer to one specific – or definite – thing.
  • La deuda financiera de la empresa se cifraba en 8.904 millones de euros / The company’s debt stood at €8.9 billion
  • Su casa está justo enfrente de la universidad / Her house is right opposite the university

To talk about a specific experience, a specific company or a university as a specific physical location (not a concept), we use “the”.

But, unlike Spanish, we do not use the definite article to talk about things in general.

  • Las deudas de las empresas con la banca había bajado el 5,19 % / Companies’ bank debts had fallen by 5.19%
  • Lo estudié en la universidad / I studied it at university

To talk about experience in general, companies in general and university as a concept (not a physical location), we do not use “the”.

Try to remember that we do not use “the” to talk about things in general.

 

■ So:

A is wrong because the author is saying that a concept is not defined in any Spanish law, i.e. Spanish law in general. Not a specific law.

A The concept of “effective place of management” is not defined in the Spanish law

 

In B, we are not talking about specific borrowers. Los prestatarios are borrowers in general and las condiciones are also conditions in general, not specific conditions.

B We are experiencing the emergence of alternative financing formulas that improve the conditions for the borrowers

If you’re talking about rules or processes in general, then you’re talking about those bound by them in general.

 

The general rule in C, on goodwill (fondo de comercio), applies to companies in general. Not “the companies”. Example C was what I call a “rodeo” sentence – impossible for a reader to stay on! So let’s rewrite it a little:

C Under the Spanish Companies Act, companies with goodwill on their balance sheets have to set aside a restricted reserve. Before distributing dividends, annual net profits must be set aside for at least 5% of the recorded goodwill, until the reserve is equal in value

 

The general requirement in D is for a limited review by auditors in general, not specific auditors.

D Half-year financial reports are now required to be subject, at least, to a limited review by the auditors

 

E is the correct answer. “The companies” are specific companies. The line comes from an article in The Economist with the heading “Why aren’t companies spending?”, discussing companies in general. Of those, the author refers to certain specific companies – the ones that have cash.

E The companies that have cash are concentrated in the tech industry, which has less need for capex [CORRECT]

 

Finally, let’s look carefully at each of the mistakes in F-H.

In F, we are talking about a specific property owner. But we are not talking about a specific, countable payment (e.g. the second payment, or third payment). Here it is an uncountable noun – the action or process of paying someone. No “the”.

F A certificate evidencing whether the property owner is up to date with the payment of co-ownership costs

G is wrong because we do not use the definite article with a numerical reference (treated like a name).

G The application of the article 44 of the Workers’ Statute entails the following

H suggested that new rules have been introduced affecting only specific renewable energy assets. This is not the case. They affect renewable energy assets in general. No “the”.

H The Spanish Government has issued several regulations affecting the renewable assets

 

I hope reading this tip wasn’t too bad an experience!