8 Simple Rules for Mastering Spanish Gender
Everything in Spanish is either male or female.
The language is charged with gender power.
If two words are not paired correctly, the imbalance creates waves of discomfort in its users.
The following tips regarding Spanish gender will help train your brain to recognize, categorize and eventually produce gender accurately while speaking Spanish.
- A noun is born: Male or female?
- Living Creatures are referred to by the gender they represent
- The Masculine in Spanish
- Nouns, Gender and Professions
- Exclusive Endings
- Exceptions That Create New Rules
- Best Practices When Learning a Language
A noun is born: Male or female?
A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. Every noun in Spanish has a specific article that denotes the gender of the word. They can be definite or indefinite and have four forms:
masculine singular → el
masculine plural → los
feminine singular → la
feminine plural → las
el niño → the boy la niña → the girl
los niños → the boys las niñas → the girls
el restaurante → the restaurant la casa → the house
los restaurantes → the restaurants las casas → the houses
el papel → the paper la mesa → the table
los papeles → the papers las mesas → the tables
el pensamiento → the thought la idea → the idea
los pensamientos → the thoughts las ideas → the ideas
Living Creatures are referred to by the gender they represent
This one is simple. Every living creature is either an el or a la. If you are an English speaker you have always referred to creatures with the. The Spanish language is a lot more detailed in this respect. It loves to observe and categorize the differences. With this in mind, take note of the first two rules for mastering Spanish gender:
- When speaking about living creatures, nouns that end in “o” are masculine.
el gato → the male cat el perro → the male dog
los gatos → the male cats los perros → the male dogs
el chico → the boy el oso → the male bear
los chicos → the boys los osos → the male bears
el abuelo → the grandfather el tío → the uncle
los abuelos → the grandparents los tíos → the uncles
- When speaking about living creatures, nouns that end in “a” are feminine.
La gata → the female cat la perra → the female dog
Las gatas → the female cats las perras → the female dogs
La chica → the girl la osa → the female bear
Las chicas → the girls las osas → the female bears
Beware of the gender trap!
There is a slight possibility that you might fall into a “gender thinking trap.” This deception tricks you into thinking that everything associated with a male will automatically be masculine and everything associated with a female will automatically be feminine. This is false. Only distinct living creatures fall under this categorization.
The following examples clearly illustrate how objects commonly associated with each gender do not follow the rule.
- la corbata → the necktie
- el maquillaje → the makeup
To keep you from falling into this trap, a very important step you can take is to experience and interact with these nouns through authentic mass media, like movies, books, and TV shows.
You could also use a virtual immersion platform. FluentU, for example, has interactive captions on all of its videos, which will make it easier to see which gender is used in a given situation.
As you watch authentic Spanish videos like movie clips and news segments, you’ll have subtitles to support you. These subtitles come in Spanish and English, though you can turn either off as you wish. By clicking on any word, you can see a breakdown of its grammar, contextual definition, example sentences and other videos on FluentU where you can hear the word used with the same meaning.
Save words to flashcard decks so you can come back to them when you’re ready to review. Practice using these gendered words correctly through exercises that have you seeing the word in writing, hearing it spoken, typing it in and even speaking it. Get the iOS or Android app for mobile learning, or use FluentU in the browser.
So, be sure to get in your authentic Spanish practice to really get these genders down.
Ready for our last six rules?
The Masculine in Spanish
When there is a crowd or a group of people, animals, ideas or things that have a mixed gender, what gender is used?
If you answered, “the masculine gender is always used when there is a mixed group,” you are already thinking in the same direction as the Spanish language.
- When there is a group of mixed gender, no matter what the ratio is of females to males and males to females, the group is always referred to as masculine.
1 niño + 4 niñas = 5 niños 1 boy + 4 girls = 5 kids
3 gatos + 542 gatas = 545 gatos 3 male cats + 542 female cats = 545 cats
The masculine gender has more power than the female gender when it comes to making the rules. Although the words have the same value, the male acts as the default leader. To make the word feminine you simply add the feminine “a” touch.
- Masculine nouns that end in consonants (non-vowels) have a corresponding feminine form that ends in “a”
el profesor → the male professor la profesora → the female professor
el doctor → the male doctor la doctora → the female doctor
el señor → the Mr. la señora → the Mrs.
Nouns, Gender and Professions
Some nouns that refer to professions do not change their forms. This does not mean that the importance of gender disappears. If the word does not change, the article is in full charge of specifying gender.
- Some nouns that refer to professions have the same form for masculine and feminine. The article is the only thing that changes.
el piloto → the male pilot la piloto → the female pilot
el soldado → the male soldier la soldado → the female soldier
el modelo → the male model la modelo → the female model
el poeta → the male poet la poeta → the female poet
el atleta → the male athlete la atleta → the female athlete
el psiquiatra → the male psychiatrist la psquiatra → the female psychiatrist
Optional brain exercise* Make a list of nouns that currently surround you (wherever you are) in English (you decide on how many you want to attempt). Try to guess their gender in Spanish. Look up the words and see how many you got right and what rules you recognize.
Some words are exclusively reserved for female articles and others are exclusively reserved for male ones. These will admit no opposite intervention, ever! The use of masculine articles with exclusively feminine endings and vice-versa will disrupt and distort your communication.
- Nouns that end in –sión, –ción, –dad, –tud and –umbre will always require the feminine article.
la exposición → the exhibition
la habitación → the room
la felicidad → the happiness
la solicitud → the application
la costumbre → the custom
- Nouns that end in –ma require a masculine article
el problema → the problem
el emblema → the emblem
el enigma → the mystery
Exceptions That Create New Rules
Languages exist within a strict framework of rules, yet they are alive, they are dynamic, and the are continuously evolving. Therefore, there are always exceptions to the rules, and these exceptions, in turn, create new rules.
- Some nouns that end in “a” are masculine
- Some nouns that end in “o” are feminine
el día → the day
el mapa → the map
el cura → the priest
el planeta → the planet
la foto → the photo
la mano → the hand
la radio → the radio
la moto → the motorcycle
Best Practices When Learning a Language
Remember, learning a new language is not a result but more of a process! It is important that you set a daily routine for your language learning that excites you and allows you to see results.
As it relates to gender, familiarize yourself with the rules. Listen carefully for them when watching your favorite movies. While reading a comic or newspaper, circle the gender agreements that most surprise you. Above all, find someone to practice with!
You will quickly catch on to the patterns, nuances and subtleties of the language this way. Think of how small children learn language for the first time. A ton of listening, a lot of gibberish, some clarity with mistakes, increase in vocabulary and finally fluency!