El or La? Gender in Spanish: How to know when a noun is feminine or masculine

Every single noun in Spanish has a gender: feminine or masculine, that means you have to know when to use ‘El’ or ‘La’ for every single noun. If you have studied Spanish you are painfully aware of this.

For English speakers it is hard to determine when a noun is feminine or masculine simply because nouns in English have no gender.

Because gender is such an integral part of learning Spanish your best bet as an English speaker is to acquire each new word with its respective article. Think of the article almost as part of the word.

Instead of learning: libro = book, try committing to memory: EL libro = The book

Because coming from English you don’t have any reference to hold on to, sometimes our memory can only recall so much and we mix up the gender. Even though Spanish is a language of exceptions, there are a few guidelines that can help when wanting to determine if a noun is feminine or masculine. All of these rules use the ending of a word as a trick to determine its gender.

Follow this link if you want to know WHY nouns have a gender in Spanish

That said, we need to get something out of the way before diving into the rules for gender in Spanish.

Debunking the -a is Feminine, -o is Masculine myth

You’ve probably heard this one before: words ending in -a are feminine and words ending in -o are masculine.

While this is actually true for a lot of words, there are so many exceptions to this rule that it often becomes more of a problem than a solution. Very often our students at Fluenz get genders mixed
up when learning new vocab because they had learned this rule of thumb. Just think of the Spanish word for “problem”: el problema !

Now that’s a problem…

Same goes with some words that end in -o that are actually feminine: la mano, la radio, la foto, etc.

La foto, can actually shed some light into one of the rules for feminine words. Just like “photo” is an abbreviation of “photograph”,  foto is the short way of saying fotografía.

Which brings us to the first rule!

Foolproof Rules to Identify Feminine Nouns in Spanish

As you might have guessed, all of the tricks we’re going to cover use word
endings to determine the gender of a word in Spanish.

ÍA – IA

Words ending in -ía and -ia

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La alcancía = piggy bank
  • La cobardía = cowardice
  • La alcaldía = town hall
  • La biología = biology
  • La energía = energy
  • La herejía = heresy
  • La claustrofobia = claustrophobia
  • La rabia = rage
  • La violencia = violence
  • La farmacia = pharmacy
  • La discordia = discord
  • La enciclopedia = Encyclopedia

Remember fotografía? Also feminine!

One Exception:

El DIA = THE DAY
“el day” is masculine and is the ONLY exception.


*People, animals and occupations have their own set of rules. It’s
coming up later.

ARA

Words ending in -ara

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La cuchara = spoon
  • La lámpara = lamp
  • La vara = rod, stick

BRA

Words ending in -bra

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La alfombra = carpet
  • La culebra = snake
  • La sombra = shadow

CHA

Words ending in -cha

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La avalancha = avalanche
  • La cancha = court, sportsfield
  • La cosecha = harvest
  • La flecha = arrow
  • La trucha = trout

CIÓN and SIÓN

Words ending in -ción and -sión

*Note the C, and S

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La canción = song
  • La solución = solution
  • La televisión = television
  • La versión = version

HEADS UP!

Words ending simply in -ión are often masculine, as in: el camión, el avión, etc., so bear that in mind!

DAD, TAD, TUD

Words ending in -dad -tad -tud

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La verdad = truth
  • La ciudad = city
  • La honestidad = honesty
  • La libertad = freedom
  • La voluntad = will
  • La juventud = youth
  • La actitud = attitude

UA and ÚA

Words ending in -ua and úa

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La grúa = crane
  • La yegua = mare

One exception:

EL agua = water *

* This is the only word ending in -ua that takes a masculine article. Yet it behaves like a feminine noun. Adjectives describing, agua are feminine. We say EL agua fríA (The cold water). You may have come across this strange exception before where the masculine article el is used for a feminine word.

 

ED

Words ending in -ed (if the stress falls on this syllable)

ARE ALWAYS FEMININE

  • La sed = thirst
  • La red = net
  • La pared = wall

Helpful, right? Now let’s check out the tricks for masculine nouns in Spanish.

Foolproof Rules for Masculine Nouns in Spanish

Unfortunately, there are not as many rules to know whether a noun in Spanish is masculine. In any case, if a word has any of the following endings you can be absolutely sure that it is masculine.

ARO

Words ending in -aro

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El descaro = nerve, insolence
  • El pájaro = bird

EMO

Words ending in -emo

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El extremo = extreme
  • El remo = oar

ECTO

Words ending in -ecto

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El afecto = affection, fondness
  • El dialecto = dialect
  • El proyecto = project
  • El trayecto = journey, course

ÍO and IO

Words ending in -ío and ío

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El cambio = change
  • El divorcio = divorce
  • El vacío = void, emptiness
  • El prejuicio = prejudice
  • El monopolio = monopoly
  • El frío = cold
  • El tío = uncle

OR

Words ending in -or

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El amor = love
  • El calor = heat
  • El sabor = taste
  • El tambor = drum

ISMO

Words ending in -ismo

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El abismo = abyss
  • El budismo = Buddhism
  • El idealismo = idealism
  • El terrorismo = terrorism

Words ending in -ismo are simply the Spanish counterparts to the English isms because they share the same Latin root.

 

ISTA

Words ending in -ista

ARE ALWAYS MASCULINE

  • El analista = analyst
  • El artista = artist
  • El taxista = taxi driver

As you can probably tell, all words that end in -ista denote occupations or stances and such, just like the endings -ist and -yst in English: therapist, marxist, etc. And of course, they are all derived from the isms of the previous rule.

Which brings us to the only exception to these rules!

THE EXCEPTION TO ALL THESE RULES

People, Animals and Occupations

When talking about people, animals and occupations things get a bit blurry. But don’t worry, we’re going to give you a framework to work with.

Regardless of the rules we stated above, if the word is referring to an animal or a person, then the article must correspond to the gender of the animal or person.

Articles always change:

For any person or animal that is masculine, these are the articles to use:

Masculine – people or animals

EL = The LOS = The (plural)
UN = A UNOS = Some

 

For any person or animal that is feminine, these are the articles to use:

Feminine – people or animals

LA = The LAS = The (plural)
UNA = A UNAS = Some

 

For example. If you have the word for friend, it refers to a person correct?

So, you would have to establish if that friend is a male or a female to determine which article to use.

If you were referring to a male friend, which article would you use EL or LA?

EL

A female friend?

LA

(Check out this link to learn how to use articles in Spanish)

The endings of nouns sometimes change:

The endings are not so obvious. More often than not, the endings change according to the gender of the person or animal:

El amigo The friend (male) La amiga The friend (female)
El hermano The brother La hermana The sister
El doctor The doctor La doctora The doctor (female)
El maestro The teacher (male) La maestra The teacher (female)
El niño The boy La niña The girl
El lobo The wolf La loba The wolf (female)
El gato The cat La gata The cat (female)

 

Sometimes only the article changes. For instance, when the word for a person or occupation ends in -e

El cantante The singer (male) La cantante The singer (female)
El visitante The visitor (male) The visitante The visitor (female)

 

When occupations end in -a it gets messy. If the occupation ends in -a it tends not to change.

El guía The guide (male) La guía The guide (female)
El espía The spy (male) La espía The spy (female)
El pianista The pianist (male) La pianista The pianist (female)

 

I know we said we would only be giving you rules that didn’t have any exceptions, the rules above are full proof- it’s when you get to people and occupations where you need to put your thinking cap on. And it gets easier with time and practice.

If you know your endings and what gender they fall into, the onlyexception to keep in mind is when the word refers to a person, an animal or an occupation because the person or animal will determine the gender of the word.

How to use the exception to the rules above

Example 1:

We said all words ending in -ìa are feminine. Yet if you are referring to a person or occupation this is what happens:

EL espía = The spy (if the spy is a man)

LA espía = The spy (if the spy is a woman.

It’s the person’s gender that will determine whether we use el or la. And because it is an occupation, we said that those that end in -a, tend to stay the same.

Example 2:

What about the word for doctor?  Doctor

We said words that end in -or are masculine. But since doctor refers to a person and an occupation, it’s the gender of the doctor that will determine the article and ending. If it is a female doctor it would be:

LA doctorA (we said that only those occupations ending in -e never change endings, and most ending in -a never change the ending).

EL doctor – The doctor (male)

LA doctorA – The doctor (female)

When you are starting out in Spanish knowing the gender of nouns is very difficult. But it is something that even advanced students mix up once in a while. And to make things more interesting, the fact is that with time, languages evolve and change.

Within the Fluenz team, amongst us who Spanish is our first language we still have numerous discussions on whether certain words are masculine or feminine.

This discussion is especially alive with occupations. The words doctorA, arquitectA, are relatively new, this is why we can’t craft a perfect rule. But for example to most of us the word médicA sounds wrong- we wouldn’t use it. We would say El médicO, La médicO. Why? Well the answer is just because 🙂

If you look at texts 30 years ago you would never find LA arquitectA, it would have been LA arquitectO. But that has changed with time, and thus we end up with rules that are blurry which do not help when those starting to learn Spanish. But that is also the beauty of a language, and the fact that it is alive and evolving is one of the elements that I find personally interesting.

In both the Fluenz online program ,and in the Fluenz Spanish Immersions we take it step by step. If you are starting to learn Spanish, we only introduce the concept of gender differences a couple of sessions in. Little by little, and loads of practice is the best remedy.

Best of luck!

Here are two articles that help shed some light on the subject:

Puzzle Solved: Why nouns in Spanish are feminine and masculine

The Ultimate Tip-Sheet to Articles in Spanish: (“El” vs. “La”, “Un” vs. “Una”)

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