10 KEY STEPS TO MASTERING SPANISH NOUN GENDER: RULES AND ADVICE
Does the use of masculine and feminine in Spanish still drive you crazy? I’m sure you’ve studied it dozens of times already, watched various videos and completed numerous grammatical exercises. I’m also sure you still make lots of mistakes and that you feel frustrated.
I’ve created this guide to give you all the information you need, summarised and clearly laid out, so that you can finally master the use of gender in the Spanish language.
My aim is to help you by providing:
- Clear and simple rules for learning when to use masculine or feminine
- Advice and tricks that are easy to put into action
- A necessary focus: “How to be inclusive in Spanish”
- A FREE PDF to practise everything you have learned
What’s the deal with Spanish nouns being masculine or feminine?
I’m sure you’ve often wondered why Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine.
Well, I’ll start by telling you that Latin and Old English (ancestors of the Spanish and English languages, respectively) had not two, but three genders! Masculine, feminine and neuter.
What happened? Over time, English dropped the use of masculine and feminine, while the majority of Latin-derived languages dropped the use of the neuter.
How can you make Spanish neutral? Well, in the case of the Spanish language, most neutral Latin nouns became masculine. Why? We don’t really know for sure, but that’s how it evolved.
How do you know if a Spanish word is masculine or feminine?
Another frequent question is: can I use my first language to work out which gender it is in Spanish? Not really. For example, in French, la table is feminine, just like in Spanish (la mesa) but in German it’s masculine (der Tisch). Why? We’re not entirely sure about that either; a cultural phenomenon dictated by tradition.
The general rule for masculine and feminine in Spanish nouns
As a general rule, one could say that Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine: names of things, animals, and also in reference to people.
Also, as a general rule – if you’re just starting out with Spanish – you could say that masculine words end in -o and feminine words end in -a. Simple, right?
- Masculine indicator -o: el niño, el perro, el libro, el ojo, etc.
- Feminine indicator -a: la niña, la perra, la casa, la boca, etc.
Exceptions to the rule for masculine and feminine in Spanish nouns
But… I’m sorry, there are some exceptions, so you’ll also find the opposite in Spanish:
- Masculine words ending in -a:* el poema, el problema, el día, el idioma, el planeta
- Feminine words ending in -o: la mano, la moto, la foto, la radio
*Many of these nouns have Greek origins.
So, you ask yourself: how do I know which Spanish nouns are masculine and which are feminine? Careful! We’ve already established that translating from your own language doesn’t always work. For example:
La sal (feminine in Spanish), Il sale (masculine in Italian).
Don’t worry, though. The good news is that there aren’t very many and you can remember them by using some of the techniques I’ll outline for you in a moment.
Other exceptions to gender rules involving different endings
In a language as rich as Spanish, inevitably there are other exceptions and endings besides -a/-o.
- End in consonants -r, -l, -n, -d: el amor, el árbol, la pasión, la ciudad, el pulmón
- End in -e: el jefe, la mente, el café, la muerte
10 things you need to know about masculine and feminine Spanish nouns: rules and examples
With so many exceptions, how can you remember which gender it is in Spanish?
We’ll divide the exceptions into 10 groups and use some easy phrases to help you to memorise them, should you need to.
- To remember FEMININE words that do NOT end in -A, let’s divide them into four mini groups.
- Ending in: –ción, -zón, -sión
Remember this mini love poem:
“Como dice la canción,
la cuestión de la pasión,
no entiende la razón”.
Mind the exception:
“Mete el corazón* roto
en el buzón*
y a por otro”.
*Exceptions: el corazón, el buzón
- Nouns ending in: -dad and -tad
Remember: “La felicidad que da la amistad”.
- Nouns ending in: -ez and -triz
Remember: “Ella de joven fue una famosa actriz y ahora, en la vejez, es una jubilada feliz”.
- Ending in: -tud, -umbre
Remember: “La juventud está llena de incertidumbre”.
- To remember MASCULINE words that do NOT end in -O, let’s divide them into two mini groups.
- Ending in -or
Remember: “El amor no debe ser un dolor”.
But note the exceptions: “Es una labor (tarea) encontrar una bella flor”.
- Ending in –aje, -an
Remember: “El traje te estará pequeño si comes mucho pan”.
- The letters of the alphabet are feminine, but numbers are masculine.
Remember: “la letra A es el 1 del alfabeto y la letra B es el 2”.
- Months and days of the week are masculine.
Remember: “Hoy es un lunes de un frío enero”.
- Most geographical nouns are masculine: rivers, cardinal points, lakes, oceans, etc.
Remember: “Los ríos y mares tienen problemas por el cambio climático, ¿serán un desierto en el futuro?”
Remember: La montaña, but el Teide, el Everest, etc.
- Some words are very similar in meaning but have very different masculine and feminine forms. They are called heteronyms.
Examples: el hombre–la mujer; el padre–la madre; el marido–la mujer; el yerno–la nuera; la vaca–el toro; la yegua–el caballo
- Some nouns only have one gender (masculine or feminine) even though they refer to people and animals of both sexes. They are called epicenes.
Examples: las personas (men and women)
la víctima de un crimen (unclear whether male or female without context)
el personaje más importante de una novela (we don’t know their sex)
la víctima era un chico sevillano (we need the context of “chico”)
la jirafa macho o la jirafa hembra (we need to specify)
- Royalty and some “stars” have special endings, as one might expect.
Examples: el rey–la reina; el príncipe–la princesa; el héroe–la heroína; el actor–la actriz
- Some nouns are the same for both sexes and can be masculine or feminine, especially where professions are concerned.**
- Ending in -ista
Examples: la / el dentista; la / el periodista
**From la modista we now have el modisto (more on this later).
- Ending in -a
Examples: el / la astronauta; la / el psicoterapeuta
- Ending in –ante, -ente
Examples: el / la estudiante; la / el paciente
**From presidente we have presidenta!!
- Ending in -ar, -er
Examples: el / la militar; el / la líder (lideresa)
- Ending in -n, -s (many of which are borrowed from other languages)
Palabras llanas (words in which the penultimate syllable is stressed): el / la joven; el / la barman
Palabras agudas (words in which the last syllable is stressed) that also have feminine -a ending:* bailarín / bailarina, dios / diosa
- Ending in -l, -z
Examples: el / la corresponsal; el / la capataz
*Numerous words have had the feminine -a added to them: la jueza, la concejala
- Ending in other consonants not listed above:
Examples: el / la chef; el / la pivot
- Generic masculine plural (for both sexes): when there is a group of mixed genders, whatever the ratio of women to men, the rule in Spanish is to make the group masculine as a whole.***
Example: “En esta clase hay 5 niños (aunque son 4 niñas y 1 niño)”.
Tip for remembering the rule for masculine and feminine in Spanish nouns: noun agreement
Adjectives and articles must agree with the gender of the noun. If you learn the exceptions alongside an adjective and/or an article from the very start, it’ll be much easier for you to remember them. That is to say, you should study the nouns alongside an article and/or adjective as it will help you remember if they are masculine or feminine.
Example: “el problema del género en español ya no es para mí una calamidad”.Examples: una mente despierta, un planeta vivo, una buena idea.
***Towanda focus: is the Spanish language sexist?
“Pensamos un universo que nuestra lengua ha modelado previamente”.
-Our image of the universe is one modelled on language from the past.
I’d like you to take a moment to try work out the solution to this simple riddle:
“López vivía con su padre, pero el padre de López murió. Sin embargo, el padre de López nunca tuvo un hijo ni vivió con él”.
What do you think the solution is?
My three-year-old son was playing with various figurines – similar to those in the photo – with his grandmother one day, when she said to him:
– “Este muñeco está malito debemos llamar al médico”.
My son replied:
– “Abuela, ¡dirás llamar a la doctora! Esta es una chica, no hay ningún doctor aquí”.
– “Ah, perdón, creí que era una enfermera”.
Though glaringly obvious to my son, I’m sure this is a fairly infrequent scene in many households. The constant use of expressions in our daily lives such as ‘ir al médico’, ‘llamar al mensajero’ or ‘esperar al cartero’, paints an image for our children of the world we live in, and it is these such expressions that contribute to our understanding of social norms.
So, why does the surname López conjure up masculine images when we first read the riddle?
Why do we have to think (more than usual) to come up with the solution?
To put it simply: because our reference points are largely masculine, and they continue to be based on roles traditionally associated with men or women.
As a Spanish student, have you ever asked yourself, “Is Spanish sexist?”
Maybe the Spanish language itself isn’t sexist, but the way in which we use it is. That’s why, in my opinion, we are not being neutral when we use the generic masculine ending. For example, if you tell someone, “Un grupo de expertos se reunirá en tu ciudad para hablar de medio ambiente,” I’ll bet you anything they picture a group of men wearing shirts and ties, (spectacles, even). However, were you to say: un comité de gente experta, or un grupo de especialistas, etc., that mental image would undoubtedly change.
What does it mean to use inclusive language in Spanish?
It means highlighting the presence of men and women in written and spoken Spanish and when representing them, avoiding linguistic sexism and not condoning social sexism present in the language.
How to be inclusive in Spanish
Someone who is sexist in the way they conduct themselves in all likelihood demonstrates that in the way they communicate. However, I also believe that some people do not consider themselves to be sexist yet are in the way they speak.
Have you ever wondered whether you are inclusive when you speak Spanish?
The fact is, the way we communicate has perpetuated things over time, meaning that some sexist elements have not changed, even though (fortunately) we have and so has society.
Time to reflect: We didn’t have female doctors in the past and now we do, but is it really that important to introduce médica as a word? My answer is a resounding YES.
REMEMBER: If it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist; it becomes invisible. Children need to picture both men and women when they say the word médico, and to do that they need to learn the feminine form, médica, as well.
And if this isn’t so, why in the case of modista (someone who designs or makes garments) did men working in the profession protest and push to have the word modisto introduced?
In some Hispanic-speaking countries, we know there have been, and still are, obstacles and opposition surrounding the use of feminine forms in professions such as juez, gerente, etc., which were traditionally male professions. Logically, we can deduce that it has little to do with linguistics, but is instead down to social and cultural phenomena, etc. In other words: could it be that there is an obstacle in the way of women assuming these roles?
Finally, there’s some debate over using -e in Spanish as an alternative gender ending, as it includes both sexes (todes, nosotres, etc.) I won’t enter into that right now, as it involves delving into other areas, but I can offer some suggestions to help make your Spanish more inclusive.
Advice and examples for using and internalising inclusive Spanish
Making a conscious effort not to use sexist language is a very personal and subjective matter. But, from my point of view, it’s just as important as using language that is not racist, for example.
You can choose between the two alternative phrases:
“En la vida los amigos son muy importantes”.
“En la vida la amistad es muy importante”.
“En la vida los amigos y las amigas son muy importantes”.
Depending on who receives the message, they will feel more or less included. I personally think the second option is a good solution.
We should always keep in mind that the way we speak signals the way we think: our perception of the world, how our thoughts are organised and how we portray reality.
For that reason, the first step is to examine ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that we ourselves are still influenced by the patriarchy. By doing a little self-reflection, I’m confident we can communicate in a way that is free of assigned roles and stereotypes.
What do you say to swapping los alumnos, los ciudadanos, los niños and los hombres for el alumnado, la ciudadanía, la infancia and la humanidad?
Que el universo que modelemos con nuestro lenguaje tenga un lugar para todas y todos.
-May our language paint a universe in which there is a place for “todas y todos”.
Activities for practising inclusive Spanish
If you think it’s important to express yourself in an inclusive way, I think it would be useful for you, as a Spanish language student, to follow some of my advice and practise with the free worksheets that you can find HERE.