Gender, an Inherent Characteristic of Spanish Nouns

Two classifications for nouns: masculine and feminine

Man
Un hombre y una mujer agarrandose las manos. (A man and a woman olding hands. "Mano," the word for hand, is one of the few Spanish nouns ending in "o" that is feminine.).

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Just as maleness or femaleness is an inherent characteristic of most animals, so is gender an inherent characteristic of nouns in Spanish. With only a few exceptions, mostly those of occupations such as dentista, the gender of nouns doesn't change with the context, and a noun's gender determines the form of many adjectives that describe it.

Key Takeaways: Spanish Noun Gender

  • Nouns in Spanish can be classified as masculine or feminine. Adjectives and articles referring to a particular noun must have the same gender as the noun.
  • Most nouns keep their gender regardless of the context in which they are used, so there are some masculine nouns that are used for things we may think of as feminine and vice versa.
  • Although there are exceptions, nearly all nouns ending in -o are masculine and most nouns ending in -a are feminine.

Grammatical Gender Not Tied to Biological Gender

Although Spanish nouns are classified as either feminine or masculine, remember that there can be feminine nouns that describe things we think of as masculine, and vice versa. For example, una jirafa, which is feminine in form, refers to a giraffe whether it's male or female, and persona (a feminine noun meaning "person") can refer to men as well as women. For some, it might be easier to think of masculine and feminine as simply two classifications rather than giving them a sexual identity.

Unlike German and some other Indo-European languages, Spanish has no neuter nouns, although there are uses for the gender as explained below

The basic rule is that masculine nouns go with masculine adjectives and articles, and feminine nouns go with feminine adjectives and articles. (In English, the articles are "a," "an" and "the." Also note that in Spanish many adjectives don't have separate masculine and feminine forms.) And if you use a pronoun to refer to a masculine noun, you use a masculine pronoun; feminine pronouns refer to feminine nouns.

Nouns and adjectives that end in -o (or -os for plurals) generally are masculine, and nouns and adjectives that end in -a (or -as for plurals) generally are feminine, although there are exceptions. For example, cada día means "each day." Día ("day") is a masculine noun; cada ("each") can be either feminine or masculine.

Since you can't always tell by looking at a noun or knowing its meaning whether it's masculine or feminine, most dictionaries use notations (f or m) to indicate the gender. And it's common in vocabulary lists to precede words with an el for masculine words and a la for feminine words. (El and la both mean "the.")

Here are examples that show some of the ways a noun's gender affects the usage of other words.

  • the man: el hombre (masculine article, masculine noun)
  • the woman: la mujer (feminine article, feminine noun)
  • a man: un hombre (masculine article, masculine noun)
  • a woman: una mujer (feminine article, feminine noun)
  • the men: los hombres (masculine article, masculine noun)
  • the women: las mujeres (feminine article, feminine noun)
  • the fat man: el hombre gordo (masculine adjective, masculine noun)
  • the fat woman: la mujer gorda (feminine adjective, feminine noun)
  • some men: unos hombres (masculine determiner, masculine noun)
  • some women: unas mujeres (feminine determiner, feminine noun)
  • He is fat: Él es gordo. (masculine pronoun, masculine adjective)
  • She is fat: Ella es gorda. (feminine pronoun, feminine adjective)

If you have two or more nouns that are being described by a single adjective, and they are of mixed genders, the masculine adjective is used.

  • El carro es caro, the car is expensive (masculine noun and adjective).
  • La bicicleta es cara, the bicycle is expensive (feminine noun and adjective).
  • El carro y la bicicleta son caros, the car and the bicycle are expensive (masculine and feminine nouns described by a masculine adjective).

Using the Neuter Gender

Although Spanish has a neuter gender, it isn't used for words listed in the dictionary as nouns.The neuter is used in two circumstances:

  • A handful of neuter pronouns such as ello are used under limited circumstances as the equivalent of "it," "this," or "that." Such pronouns don't refer to things whose names have gender, however, but rather to concepts or ideas.
  • The neuter definite article lo can be placed before an adjective to create a phrase that functions as a neuter abstract noun. For example, lo difícil can mean "the difficult thing" or "that which is difficult."