Welcome to our very basic lesson about gender in Spanish. How can we tell the gender of nouns in Spanish? Let’s look at the most general rule: Words that end in "a" are feminine, while those that end in "o" are masculine. Pretty easy, huh? Let's look at some examples:
Y la casa es súper bonita.
And the house is super nice.
Caption 86, Blanca y Mariona - Vida en generalPlay Caption
Since the word casa is a feminine noun, the speaker uses the definite feminine article la before the noun. Let's see another one:
El libro es tan bueno
The book is as good
Caption 21, Karla e Isabel - ComparativosPlay Caption
In this case, the speaker uses the definite masculine article el before the masculine noun libro. By the way, please feel free to check our beginner-level lesson about definite and indefinite articles in Spanish grammar.
The unfortunate thing, however, is that this simple rule is not always true, as our friend Arume proves when she correctly says "el tema" (the topic) and not "la tema," which would be incorrect.
Y bueno ahí surge ya el tema de tengo novio, no tengo novio.
And well, that's when the topic of whether you have a boyfriend or not comes up.
Caption 75, Arume - La Vida EscolarPlay Caption
Furthermore, in the first installment of our series on Andalusian farmers, "Del Campo a la Mesa," the eldest picker illustrates another exception when he says, correctly, "las manos" (the hands):
Pa' ganar cincuenta euros tienes que mover mucho las manos.
To be able to earn fifty Euros, you have to move the hands a lot.
Caption 29, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesaPlay Caption
And it's not just such exceptions but also some rules that can complicate the situation. For example, do you know why the Mexican band Café Tacuba’s lead singer says "el agua," using the masculine article "el" (the) instead of the feminine article "la" (the)?
El agua derramada está
The water is already spilled
Caption 17, Café Tacuba - Volver a comenzarPlay Caption
It’s not because agua is a masculine noun but rather because of a rule in Spanish that states that any feminine noun that begins with a stressed "a" should take the masculine articles (el and un) in its singular form in order to facilitate pronunciation (by avoiding two "a" sounds in a row). This is similar to the manner in which the indefinite article "a" in English changes to "an" before vowels.
You will note, however, that this rule does not apply to the plural forms, which maintain their feminine articles (which end in "s" rather than "a" and thus don't pose the same pronunciation challenge):
Ellos vinieron aquí, a las aguas de la Charca Larga,
They came here, to the waters of Long Pond,
y había muchos seres extraños.
and there were many strange beings.
Captions 42-43, Salvando el planeta Palabra - LlegadaPlay Caption
And, in cases in which the "a" sound is unstressed, the rule doesn't apply, either:
La aceituna que yo he recogido está aquí.
The olive[s] that I have harvested [are] here.
Caption 19, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesaPlay Caption
In conclusion, let’s just say that native Spanish speakers learn the gender of words by hearing and using them constantly in real situations and not by memorizing exceptions or wondering whether the word tristeza (sadness) feels more masculine or feminine. That said, the more we immerse ourselves in authentic Spanish, the more we, as learners, can begin to “intuitively” know the gender of nouns that we frequently encounter, including those that don’t follow the common pattern.
In any case, if you feel ready to explore some of the rules and exceptions of gender in Spanish, we invite you to take a look at our lesson about the gender of inanimate objects in Spanish. We hope that this brief introduction to gender in Spanish was useful, and please feel free to send us your suggestions and comments.