Spanish Words That Break the Gender Rule

Ending offers a good clue to gender, but there are exceptions

Mano del desierto, sculpture in Chile
La "Mano del desierto," una escultura en Chile. (The "Desert Hand," a sculpture in Chile.). Marcos Escalier/Creative Commons.

Spanish nouns that end with -o are masculine, and ones that end with -a are feminine, right?

Well, almost always. But there are exceptions to the gender rule, of which the two best-known are mano, the word for hand, which is feminine; and día, the word for "day," which is masculine. So you can talk about la mano and las manos and well as el día and los días.

Key Takeaways

  • Most Spanish nouns ending in -o are masculine, and most ending in -a are feminine, but there are exceptions.
  • Some of the exceptions occur because of how the words were treated in other languages, such as Latin and Greek.
  • Many nouns that refer to jobs or roles of people can be either masculine or feminine depending on the person they refer to.

6 Ways in Which the Rule Is Broken

Exceptions fall into six categories:

  • Words that are shortened versions of other words. For example, la foto (photograph) is feminine because it's short for la fotografía.
  • Words that end in -ista as the equivalent of the English "-ist." For example, dentista can be either masculine or feminine depending on whether the dentist referred to is a man or woman. A few words with other endings are treated the same way. For example, modelo can be either masculine or feminine when referring to a human model, but masculine in other uses (such as when referring to a model airplane).
  • Words whose meanings vary depending on the gender. For example, in some areas, la radio means "radio," while el radio means "radius" or "radium." Sometimes la radio is used to refer to the communications medium and el radio for a radio set.
  • Some masculine words that come from Greek and end in -a (often -ma). Most of these words have English cognates.
  • A few compound nouns, which are traditionally masculine, even when the noun portion comes from a feminine noun.
  • Words that are just exceptions, such as mano and día. Usually these exceptions come from the way the words were treated in Latin.

Here is a list of the most common exceptions to the "masculine o, feminine a" rule:

  • el aromaaroma
  • el CanadáCanada
  • el climaclimate
  • el cólera — cholera (but la cólera, anger)
  • el cometa — comet (but la cometa, kite)
  • el cura — male priest (but la cura, cure)
  • el día — day
  • el diagrama — diagram
  • el dilema — dilemma
  • el diploma — diploma
  • la disco — disco (short for la discoteca)
  • el drama — drama
  • el enigma — enigma
  • el esquema — outline, diagram
  • la foto — photo (short for la fotografía)
  • el guardia — policeman or male guard (but la guardia, vigilance, policewoman or female guard)
  • el guardabrisa — windshield
  • el guardarropa — clothing closet
  • el guía — male guide (but la guía, guidebook or female guide)
  • el idioma — language
  • el idiota — male idiot (but la idiota, female idiot)
  • el indígena — indigenous male (but la indígena, indigenous female)
  • la mano — hand
  • el mañana — near future (but la mañana, tomorrow or morning)
  • el mapa — map
  • la modelo — female model (but el modelo, male model)
  • el morfema — morpheme
  • la moto — motorcycle (short for la motocicleta)
  • la nao — ship
  • el panorama — panorama, outlook
  • el papa — pope (but la papa, potato)
  • el planeta — planet
  • el plasma — plasma
  • el poema — poem
  • el policía — policeman (but la policía, police force or policewoman)
  • el problema — problem
  • el programa — program
  • el quechua — Quechua language
  • la radio — radio (short for la radiodifusión; but el radio, radius or radium; usage of the feminine form depends on the region)
  • la reo — female criminal (but el reo, male criminal)
  • el reuma, el reúma — rheumatism
  • el síntoma — symptom, sign
  • el sistema — system
  • el sofá — sofa
  • la soprano — female soprano (but el soprano, male soprano)
  • el tanga — G-string
  • el telegrama — telegram
  • el tema — theme, subject
  • el teorema — theorem
  • el tequila — tequila (short for el licor de Tequila)
  • la testigo — female witness (but el testigo, male witness)
  • el tranvía — streetcar

Gender for Names of Occupations and Other Roles

Most words that refer to people's jobs or roles, many ending in -ista or -eta, that can be either masculine or feminine are not listed above. Most have English cognates. Among the abundance of words that fit that category are el/la atleta (athlete), el/la artista (artist), el/la astronauta (astronaut), el/la dentista (dentist), el/la comentarista (commentator), el/la izquierdista (leftist or left-winger), el/la oficinista (office worker), el/la poeta (poet), el/la profeta (prophet), and el/la turista (tourist).

Feminine Nouns That Use El

Also not included in the list are combinations such as el agua (water) — feminine words that begin with a stressed a- or ha- and are preceded by el in the singular form only. Others are el águila (eagle), el ama (woman of the house), and el alma (soul). But note that the normal rules are followed in the plural form: las aguas, las águilas, las amas and las almas.

With these words, el doesn't indicate gender but is used instead for ease of pronunciation. It is similar to the way in which Englist substitutes "an" for "a" in front of some nouns, as the rule applies to the opening sound of the word, not how it's spelled.