How to Choose the Correct Gender and Number for Nouns in Italian

View of beach umbrellas in Tropea, Calabria, Italy
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When you start learning Italian grammar, you’ll hear one concept often: Everything in Italian must agree in gender and number. All nouns in Italian have a gender (il genere); that is, they are either masculine or feminine, even those referring to things, qualities, or ideas.

This can be a strange concept to native English speakers as cars are often not thought of as being feminine (except to car aficionados) and dogs are not thought of as being masculine, like in Italian. Generally, singular nouns ending in -o are masculine while nouns ending in -a are feminine. There are a number of exceptions, like il poeta, "the poet," being masculine, but you can stick to the rule above when in doubt.

Masculine vs. Feminine Nouns

Most Italian nouns (i nomi) end in a vowel. Nouns that end in a consonant are of foreign origin. Some examples of masculine nouns include (with the Italian on the left and the English translation on the right):

  • Amico ˃ friend
  • Treno ˃ train
  • Dollaro ˃ dollar
  • Panino ˃ sandwich

Examples of feminine nouns include:

  • Amica ˃ friend
  • Bicicletta ˃ bicycle
  • Lira ˃ lira
  • Studentessa ˃ student

The most important element to look for to determine the gender is the definite article, but you’ll notice that nouns ending in -e may be masculine or feminine. You need to memorize the gender of these nouns. Masculine nouns to memorize include:

  • Studente ˃ student
  • Ristorante ˃ restaurant
  • Caffè ˃ coffee

Female nouns you must memorize include:

  • Automobile ˃ car
  • Notte ˃ night
  • Arte ˃ art

Nouns ending -ione are generally feminine, while nouns ending in -ore are almost always masculine, as demonstrated by the examples in this table.

televisione (f.)

television

attore (m.)

actor

nazione (f.)

nation

autore (m.)

author

opinione (f.)

opinion

professore (m.)

professor

Words like “bar” that end in a consonant are generally masculine, such as autobus, film, or sport.

Why “Cinema” Is Masculine

You’ll start to notice that some words that would seem to be feminine—like “cinema” since it ends in an -a—are actually masculine. This happens because abbreviated nouns retain the gender of the words from which they are derived. "Cinema” comes from cinematografo, making it a masculine noun.

Other common words covered by this rule include those that would seem to be masculine (ending in -o), but are actually feminine because the words from which they are derived are feminine (ending in -a):

  • Foto (from fotografia)
  • Moto (from motocicletta)
  • Auto (from automobile)
  • Bici (from bicicletta)

Singular vs. Plural

Similar to English, Italian has a different ending when a noun is singular or plural. Unlike English, there are four possible endings instead of English’s one, as shown in these tables:

SINGOLARE

PLURALE

Nouns ending in:

-o

change to:

-i

-a

-e

-ca

-che

-e

-i


amico (m.) friend →

amici ˃ friends

studentessa (f.) →

studentesse ˃ students

amica (f.) friend →

amiche ˃ friends

studente (m.) →

studenti ˃ students

Nouns ending with an accented vowel or a consonant do not change in the plural, nor do abbreviated words, as in these examples:

  • Un caffè (one coffee) = due caffè (two coffees)
  • Un film (one movie) = due film (two movies)
  • Una foto (one photo) = due foto (two photos)

Learning the gender and number of each noun takes practice, so don’t stress if you still make mistakes. Usually, Italians will still be able to understand you, so just focus on expressing yourself and don’t worry about having perfect grammar. The goal of learning a foreign language will always be connection instead of perfection.

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Hale, Cher. "How to Choose the Correct Gender and Number for Nouns in Italian." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/italian-nouns-gender-and-number-4058574. Hale, Cher. (2021, February 16). How to Choose the Correct Gender and Number for Nouns in Italian. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/italian-nouns-gender-and-number-4058574 Hale, Cher. "How to Choose the Correct Gender and Number for Nouns in Italian." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/italian-nouns-gender-and-number-4058574 (accessed April 20, 2021).

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