Nouns in the Spanish language are classified as either masculine and feminine. In English, nouns are only rarely classified by gender — notable exceptions would be terms like son/daughter, actor/actress, or widow/widower. But usually, nouns in English do not carry any gender classification.
In contrast, every person, place, thing or idea in Spanish is assigned to either the male or female gender. For nouns that describe people, the classification is usually obvious. For example, la mujer (woman) is a feminine noun and el hombre (man) is a masculine noun. Likewise, el maestro describes a male teacher, while la maestra describes a female teacher.
For nouns that describe innanimate objects, the gender classfications are basically arbitrary. Usually the gender assigned to an object has nothing to do with the physical characteristics of the object it describes. The fact that the noun el libro (book) is masculine and the noun la mesa (table) is feminine, doesn’t imply anything about the manliness of books compared to tables.
Fortunately, there are a few general rules you can use to determine if a noun is feminine or masculine.
Most masculine nouns in Spanish end in –o (–os in the plural form). An –o ending can indicate that a person or animal is male or that an object or idea is grammatically masculine: el fuego (fire), el chico (boy), el libro (book).
Masculine nouns also include nouns ending in:
- -e, e.g. el perfume (perfume)
- an accented vowel (á, é, í, ó, ú), e.g. el ají (chili pepper)
- the suffix -ma, e.g. el idioma (language)
- a consonant other than d, z, e.g. el árbol (tree)
Most feminine nouns end in –a (–as in the plural form). Ending in an –a indicates that a person or animal is female or that an object or an idea is grammatically feminine: la taza (cup), la chica (girl), la playa (beach).
Feminine nouns also include nouns ending in:
- the consonants d, z, e.g. la felicidad (happiness), la paz (peace),
- the suffix –ión, e.g. la religion (religion).
There are, of course, exceptions to these rules. They make things a little more confusing, but after some time and with sufficient practice you will easily remember them well. For example, there are nouns ending in –a that are masculine, like el planeta (planet), or el agua (water) and nouns ending in –o that are feminine, like la mano (hand) or la radio (radio). Note that la foto is also feminine, because is simply abbreviation of the female noun la fotografía).
As for nouns describing people, there are often pairs of masculine and feminine nouns, describing, say, family members or professions: el hijo – la hija (son, daughter), el maestro – la maestra (teacher). It is also true for some nouns describing animals: el gato – la gata (male cat, female cat).
It is important to know the gender of a noun to be able to use it properly together with the right articles and adjectives.
Articles in Spanish always match their nouns in gender and number:
|Masculine articles||Feminine articles|
un movil (a mobile phone), el movil (the mobile phone), unos moviles (a few mobile phones), los moviles (the mobile phones),
una foto (a photograph), la foto (the photograph), unas fotos (a few photographs), las fotos (the photographs).
Spanish adjectives follow the same rules – they must match the noun in gender and number. Just like nouns, many feminine adjectives end in –a and most masculine adjectives end in –o (–as and –os for the plural forms). For example, una chica bonita (a pretty girl) or los chicos altos (the tall boys).