As explained in a previous post, Spanish nouns are divided into two groups: masculine nouns and feminine nouns. Here, we will learn how to determine which gender nouns belong to.
You might be wondering why you need to know this. To answer, it’s important to know a noun’s gender before you use it, because a noun’s gender in turn determines the gender of adjectives and determiners used with it.
Here are ways to determine a noun’s gender.
1. Consult a dictionary
The most reliable way to learn the gender of a Spanish noun is to consult the word in a dictionary. Spanish dictionaries always indicate the gender of nouns. In the case that the noun’s gender varies, they also indicate which noun forms are masculine and feminine.
Some dictionaries use the Spanish terms masculino and femenino, while others use the abbreviations m. and f. Still others use the target language terms for masculine and feminine.
However, at times, we won’t have a dictionary on hand or will not be allowed to used it (e.g., during an examination). At these times, use one or more of the following options.
2. Check the gender of adjectives and determiners applied to the noun
If you’re working sentences that use nouns with questionable gender, look for any adjectives or determiners that apply to each noun. You might recognize the gender of those adjectives or determiners and can thereby determine each noun’s gender. Masculine adjectives and determiners are used with masculine nouns, while feminine adjectives and determiners are used with feminine nouns.
Adjectives and determiners can appear either before or after the noun they modify:
“Dame el peine.” (“Give me the comb.”) “El” is a masculine article, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“Dame la llave.” (“Give me the key.”) “La” is a feminine article, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
“¿Tienes un peine?” (“Do you have a comb?”) “Un” is a masculine article, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“¿Tienes una llave?” (“Do you have a key?”) “Una” is a feminine article, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
“Aquí hay muchos peines.” (“There are many combs here.”) “Muchos” is a masculine determiner, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“Aquí hay muchas llaves.” (“There are many keys here.”) “Muchas” is a feminine determiner, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
“Tengo un peine nuevo.” (“I have a new comb.”) “Un” is a masculine article and “nuevo” is a masculine adjective, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“Tengo una llave nueva.” (“I have a new key.”) “Una” is a feminine article and “nueva” is a feminine adjective, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
They can also be separated from the noun by other words:
“Aquí hay peines que no son míos.” (“There are combs here that aren’t mine.”) “Míos” is a masculine adjective, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“Aquí hay llaves que no son mías.” (“There are keys here that aren’t mine.”) “Mías” is a feminine adjective, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
“Encontré peines en la casa, pero estaban sucios.” (“I found combs in the house, but they were dirty.”) “Sucios” is a masculine adjective, so we know that “peine” is a masculine noun.
“Encontraron llaves en la casa, pero estaban sucias.” (“They found keys in the house, but they were dirty.”) “Sucias” is a feminine adjective, so we know that “llave” is a feminine noun.
With some nouns whose adjectives and determiners can be both masculine and feminine, we must use other methods to determine gender—unless there are other adjectives and/or determiners that can reveal the difference in gender.
“¿Dónde está mi peine?” (“Where’s my comb?”)
“¿Dónde está mi llave?” (“Where’s my key?”)
“Mi” is a possessive adjective that can be used both with masculine and feminine nouns, so we can’t guess the gender here.
The same happens with adjectives “grandes” and “naranjas” in the following examples:
“¿Tienen peines grandes?” (Do you have big combs?)
“¿Tienen llaves grandes?” (Do you have big keys?)
“Usan peines naranjas.” They use orange combs.
“Usan llaves naranjas.” They use orange keys.
Beware of feminine nouns preceded by masculine-singular articles
When feminine singular nouns beginning with a stressed -a or -ha need an article, the masculine-singular articles el and un are used for reasons of pronunciation.
However, since this rule doesn’t affect the noun’s gender or the gender of other adjectives and determiners, we can check whether any of these factors can verify the noun’s gender.
“Un águila blanca voló sobre nosotros.” (“A white eagle flew over us.”)
“Blanca” is a feminine adjective, so we know that “águila” is a feminine noun.
“El asa derecha está rota.” (“The right handle is broken.”) “Derecha” and “rota” are a feminine adjectives, so we know that “asa” is a feminine noun.
“He comprado un hacha nueva.” (“I bought a new axe.”) “Nueva” is a feminine adjective, so we know that “hacha” is a feminine noun.
If there aren’t any other adjectives, then we cannot rely only on the article.
“El tesoro está en el arca.” (“The treasure is in the chest.”)
“El tesoro está en el ático.” (“The treasure is in the attic.”)
Though “ático“ is masculine and “arca” is feminine, “el“ doesn’t give us any information.
3. Observe the noun’s ending
Even if we can’t use the above mentioned methods, we can still guess the noun’s gender.
Spanish noun endings can often indicate the noun’s gender. Some endings are typically masculine, while others are typically feminine—with some exceptions.
Nouns ending in -o:
The ending -o is a primary indication of masculinity—not only among nouns, but among adjectives, determiners, and pronouns as well.
Cuadro (painting), libro (book), canguro (kangaroo), and pomelo (grape fruit) are masculine nouns.
Dinamo (dynamo), libido (libido), mano (hand), and polio (polio), among others, are feminine nouns.
Foto (photography) and moto (motorbike) are also common exceptions. Both nouns are actually shorter versions of fotografía and motocicleta, both of which end in -a.
Some nouns ending in –o that refer to people can be used as both masculine and feminine (e.g., médico [doctor], soldado [soldier], modelo [model], bombero [firefighter]).
Though radio (radio) is feminine in Spain and most of South America, it is masculine in most of Central America and some parts of South America.
Radio can also mean “radius,” “spoke,” and “radium.” In these cases, it is masculine.
Nouns ending in -or,-il -án, -aje, -ambre, or a stressed vowel
Nouns ending in -or, -án, -aje, -ambre, or a stressed vowel are generally masculine.
Comedor (dining room), atril (lectern), azafrán (saffron), embalaje (packaging), alambre (wire), and jabalí (wild boar) are masculine nouns.
Compound nouns formed by a verb plus a noun
Compound nouns formed by a verb plus a noun are normally masculine.
Lavaplatos (dishwasher), marcapáginas (bookmark), and parachoques (parachute) are masculine nouns.
You can read more about this kind of compound noun here.
Days of the week and months
Days of the week and months are masculine.
lunes (Monday), martes (Tuesday), enero (January), febrero (February)
Nouns ending in -a
The ending -a is the primary indication of femininity—not only among nouns, but among adjectives, determiners, and pronouns as well.
Caja (box), maraca (maraca), and subasta (auction) are feminine nouns.
Día (day), gorila (gorilla), mapa (map), and planeta (planet), among other exceptions, are masculine nouns.
And most words ending in -ma are masculine (e.g., aroma [aroma], clima [climate], poema [poem]).
Although there are also exceptions for this pattern (e.g., cama [bed], crema [cream], are feminine nouns.)
Nouns ending in -ez, -ción, -sión, -dad, -tad, -tud, -umbre, -ie, -sis, or -itis
Nouns ending in -ez, -ción, -sión, -dad, -tad, -tud, -umbre, -ie, -sis, or -itis are generally feminine, too.
Rapidez (speed), intuición (intuition), televisión (television), verdad (truth), libertad (freedom), multitud (crowd), costumbre (habit), serie (series), parálisis (paralysis) y otitis (otitis) are feminine nouns.
4. Sometimes a noun’s gender depends on its meaning
Some nouns referring to non-living things can be masculine and feminine, yet have different meanings in each case. Think about their meaning to determine whether they are masculine or feminine.
Coma is a masculine noun when meaning “coma”, but it is a feminine noun when meaning “comma.
Pez is a masculine noun when meaning “fish”, but it is a feminine noun when meaning “tar”.
What if I can’t figure out the gender of a noun?
We should try to memorize every noun’s gender together with its meaning.
In the case that we are writing and can’t remember a noun’s gender, we should try to determine it in the ways suggested above in order to use adjectives and determiners correctly.
If we are speaking in Spanish, we should do our best to use adjectives and determiners according to the gender of the noun they apply to. However, not knowing the gender of the nouns we use or feeling insecure about it should never stop us from speaking. In most cases, using inappropriate noun genders doesn’t hinder comprehension; communication and practice are always more important. Remember to have fun when speaking Spanish!