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?

Yes, usually. But there are plenty of exceptions to this 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.

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 to the a-is-feminine-o-is-masculine rule 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, such as modelo for a human model, are treated the same way.
  • Words whose meanings vary depending on the gender. For example, un cometa is a comet, but una cometa is a kite.
  • 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.

List of Words Violating the Gender Rule

Here are the most common words violating the a/o rule, although there are dozens of others:

  • el aromaaroma
  • el CanadáCanada
  • el climaclimate
  • el cóleracholera (but la cólera, anger)
  • el cometacomet (but la cometa, kite)
  • el curamale priest (but la cura, cure or female priest)
  • el díaday
  • el diagramadiagram
  • el dilemadilemma
  • el diplomadiploma
  • la discodisco (short for la discoteca)
  • el dramadrama
  • el enigmaenigma
  • el esquemaoutline, diagram
  • la fotophoto (short for la fotografía)
  • el guardiapoliceman or male guard (but la guardia, vigilance, policewoman or female guard)
  • el guardabrisawindshield
  • el guardarropaclothing closet
  • el guíamale guide (but la guía, guidebook or female guide)
  • el idiomalanguage
  • el idiotamale idiot (but la idiota, female idiot)
  • el indígenaindigenous male (but la indígena, indigenous female)
  • la manohand
  • el mañananear future (but la mañana, tomorrow or morning)
  • el mapamap
  • la modelofemale model (but el modelo, male model or various types on inanimate models)
  • el morfemamorpheme
  • la motomotorcycle (short for la motocicleta)
  • la naoship
  • el panoramapanorama, outlook
  • el papapope (but la papa, potato)
  • el planetaplanet
  • el plasmaplasma
  • el poemapoem
  • el policíapoliceman (but la policía, police force or policewoman)
  • el problemaproblem
  • el programaprogram
  • el quechuaQuechua language
  • la radioradio (short for la radiodifusión; but el radio, radius or radium; usage of the feminine form depends on the region)
  • la reofemale criminal (but el reo, male criminal)
  • el reuma, el reúmarheumatism
  • el síntomasymptom, sign
  • el sistema:system
  • el sofásofa
  • la sopranofemale soprano (but el soprano, male soprano)
  • el tangaG-string
  • el telegramatelegram
  • el tematheme, subject
  • el teorematheorem
  • el tequilatequila (short for el licor de Tequila)
  • la testigofemale witness (but el testigo, male witness)
  • el tranvíastreetcar

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 atletaathlete
  • el/la artistaartist
  • el/la astronautaastronaut
  • el/la dentistadentist
  • el/la derechista: rightist or right-winger
  • el/la comentarista: commentator
  • el/la flebotomista: phlebotomist
  • el/la izquierdista: leftist or left-winger
  • el/la oficinista: office worker
  • el/la poeta: poet
  • el/la profetaprophet
  • el/la turistatourist

Feminine Nouns That Use El

Also not included in the top list are combinations such as el agua (water) and el águila (eagle)—feminine words that begin with a stressed a- or ha- and are immediately preceded by el (rather than la) in the singular form only.

With these words, el doesn't indicate gender but is used instead for ease of pronunciation. It is similar to the way in which English 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.