10 Things You Should Know About Gender in Spanish

Gender applies to nouns, adjectives, and articles

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Note how "niña" and "niño" are feminine and masculine forms, respectively, of the same word.

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Here are 10 facts about Spanish gender that will be useful as you learn the language:

1. Gender is a way of classifying nouns into two categories. Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine, although there are a few that are ambiguous, meaning that Spanish speakers are inconsistent in which gender is applied to them. Also, some nouns, particularly those that refer to people, can be masculine or feminine depending on whether they refer to a male or female, respectively. The grammatical significance of gender is that adjectives and articles referring to nouns must be of the same gender as the nouns they refer to.

2. Spanish also has a neuter gender that applies to one definite article and a few pronouns. By using the definite article lo, it is possible to make an adjective function as if it were a neuter noun. The neuter pronouns generally are used to refer to ideas or concepts rather than to things or people. They can also be used to things whose identities aren't known, as in "¿Qué es eso?" for "What is that?"

3. Except when referring to people and some animals, the gender of a noun is arbitrary. Thus, things associated with females can be masculine (for example, un vestido, a dress). And things associated with males (for example, virilidad, masculinity) can be feminine. In other words, there is no way to predict a noun's gender from its meaning. For example, silla and mesa (chair and table, respectively) are feminine, but taburete and sofá (stool and couch) are masculine.

4. Although feminine words as a general rule refer to females, and masculine words to females, it is possible to do the opposite. The words for man and woman, hombre and mujer, respectively, are the gender you'd expect, as are words for girl and boy, chica and chico. But it is important to remember that the gender of a noun attaches to the word itself rather than to what it refers. So persona, the word for person, is feminine regardless of who it refers to, and the word for baby, bebé, is masculine.

5. Spanish grammar has a preference for the masculine gender. The masculine might be considered the "default" gender. Where masculine and feminine forms of a word exist, it is the masculine that is listed in dictionaries. Also, new words that enter the language are typically masculine unless there's a reason to treat the word otherwise. For example, the imported English words marketing, suéter (sweater), and sándwich are all masculine. Web, referring to a computer network, is feminine, probably because it as a shortened form of página web (web page), and página is feminine.

6. Many words have separate masculine and feminine forms. Most if not all of these are used for referring to people or animals. In most cases for singular nouns and adjectives, the feminine form is made by adding an a to the masculine form or changing an ending e or o to a. A few examples:

  • amigo (male friend), amiga (female friend)
  • profesor (male teacher), profesora (female teacher)
  • sirviente (male servant), sirvienta (female servant)

A few words have irregular differences:

  • tigre (male tiger), tigresa (female tiger)
  • rey (king), reina (queen)
  • actor (actor), actriz (actress)
  • toro (bull), vaca (cow)

7. There are a few exceptions to the rule that words ending in o are masculine and many exceptions to the rule that words ending in a are feminine. Among the feminine o words are mano (hand), foto (photo), and disco (disco). Among the masculine a words are numerous words of Greek origin such as dilema (dilemma), drama, tema (subject), and holograma (hologram). Also, many a words that refer to occupations or types of people — among them atleta (athlete), hipócrita (hypocrite), and dentista (dentist) — can be either masculine or feminine.

8. As the culture in which Spanish is spoken changes, so is the way the language treats gender as it applies to people. For example, at one time la doctora almost always referred to a doctor's wife, and la jueza referred to the wife of the judge. But these days, those same terms usually mean a female doctor and judge, respectively. Also, it is becoming more common to use terms such as la doctor (rather than la doctora) and la juez (rather than la jueza) when referring to female professionals.

9. The masculine form is used to refer to mixed groups of males and females. Thus, depending on the context, los muchachos can mean either the children or the boys. Las muchachas can refer only to the girls. Even padres (padre is the word for father) can refer to parents, not just fathers. However, the use of both masculine and feminine forms — such as muchachos y muchachas for "boys and girls" rather than just muchachos — is growing more common.

10. In colloquial written Spanish, it is becoming more common to use "@" as a way of indicating that a word can refer to either males of females. In traditional Spanish, if you were writing a letter to a group of friends, you might open with the masculine form, "Queridos amigos," for "Dear friends" even if your friends are of both sexes. Some writers these days would use "Querid@s amig@s" instead. Note that the at symbol, known as the arroba in Spanish, looks something like a combination of an a and an o.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "10 Things You Should Know About Gender in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/facts-about-gender-in-spanish-3079271. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). 10 Things You Should Know About Gender in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-gender-in-spanish-3079271 Erichsen, Gerald. "10 Things You Should Know About Gender in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-gender-in-spanish-3079271 (accessed June 5, 2023).