After learning that every Spanish noun has a gender and the initial shock has worn off, an uncomfortable reality sets in.
You now have to memorise an additional piece of information on top of learning a vast array of unfamiliar words.
Not only do you have to remember that nouns such as césped means ‘lawn’, you also have to remember that ‘lawn’ in Spanish is masculine: el césped.
What’s worse, there are some noun genders that are still up for debate amongst native speakers.
I recently witnessed an animated discussion over the word elfo (elf). Once we moved past the idea that an elf was actually different to a smurf, and did, in fact, have a gender, the question remained, how do you say female elf in Spanish?: ¿Es una elfo? ¿Es una elfa? o ¿Es una elfina? After consulting the main authority website for debates of this nature (www.fundeu.es), the answer was disappointing—there is no consensus.
All that said, you won’t have to worry about the gender of words that are subject to debate amongst natives. If a word like this does come up in conversation, it will make for an interesting discussion.
Instead, what you should focus on is a number of rules you can use to simplify the process of recalling the gender of Spanish nouns. This, in turn, will help you develop and understand the role your intuition plays over time with language learning and, in particular noun gender.
The role of intuition in language learning
When I first started learning Spanish, the fear of forgetting the genders of nouns had a big impact on me.
For a long time, I didn’t believe I was good at language learning. The biggest factor that contributed to my doubts was a mental hurdle I had to face: could I really memorise the amount of information you need to speak another language?
The vocabulary itself was one thing, but then the thought of having to memorise an associated el and la for every noun honestly seemed like something I could never overcome.
But, years on from that moment, I can confidently say that it is possible, and there is another important factor that I never thought would be part of the equation—intuition.
The idea for this post came from a conversation I had when I was out for dinner with a Spanish friend last week.
We were chatting about life, and at one point in the conversation the concept of owning a home came up. I started to say something about having to mow the lawn, and work in the garden, and as I said these words in Spanish I started one with la and quickly corrected myself to el and said the other with el.
These words are both masculine: el jardín (the garden) and el césped (the lawn or grass).
As I was speaking, I realised that I didn’t remember a specific rule with these two words, they just felt right being masculine.
I thought myself ‘how do I know this?’ and the only answer that came to mind is that over time with plenty of exposure and practice, right and wrong simply starts to feel natural.
When I started to say la césped, I thought this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t.
If you had told me at the very start of my language learning journey that intuition was an important factor for remembering things such as the gender of nouns, I wouldn’t have believed you.
To respond, I might have told my younger self that you have probably had a similar experience with your English. A simple example might be ‘My friend and me went to the movies’. Despite this usage becoming more and more common, this mistake doesn’t feel right when you analyse it.
The reason it doesn’t feel right isn’t that you were taught a set of rules and the sentence clearly breaks those rules.
It’s that after years of exposure and conditioning with the English language, a grammatical mistake just won’t intuitively feel right.
Given enough time, this same thing will happen with your Spanish.
Put simply, the process of learning goes like this:
- Learn what something is supposed to be
- Forget what it is supposed to be (Not deliberately, it just happens as you focus on new information) then
- Use your intuition later.
The quickest way to embed this concept in your mind is to experience it.
So, learn the following noun patterns in this post. Practice them. Then over time, forget them. Then see if sometime in the next 1 month, 2 months or more, if you can experience an intuitive muscle that will help provide not only guidance at the moment but confidence that achieving your language goals, is simply a case of doing more of what’s working, and letting the subconscious do the rest.
Category 1 – Nouns ending in ‘o’ and ‘a’
Rather than naming the next few sections of this post ‘rule 1’, ‘rule 2’ etc., I will call them categories. This is because each Spanish noun will fall into one of the following categories, and because there are lots of exceptions to any kind of rules.
Moreover, these categories are simply there to help you make intuitive guesses in the future.
The first and most basic category is: nouns that end in ‘o’ are masculine and nouns that end in ‘a’ are feminine.
Here are some examples:
|The thing||La cosa|
|The house||La casa|
|The life||La vida|
|The person||La persona|
|The word||La palabra|
|The year||El año|
|The side||El lado|
|The job||El trabajo|
|The type||El tipo|
|The example||El ejemplo|
There are a lot of nouns in Spanish that fall into this category. This is what makes learning masculine and feminine Spanish nouns easier than other romance languages such as French.
Category 2 – Nouns that don’t end ‘o’ or ‘a’ and are masculine
The following nouns are a fair bit harder than the previous category. There aren’t any specific rules that will help with these nouns.
What I haven’t done, though, is choose these words at random. They come from the conversation hacking guide, which means they occur frequently in Spanish, therefore you are probably going to need them in one of your next Spanish interactions.
I will continue to choose nouns from the high-frequency list for the rest of the post.
Here are the examples:
|The man||El hombre|
|The father||El padre|
|The country||El país|
|The place||El lugar|
|The name||El nombre|
|The month||El mes|
|The front||El frente|
|The order||El orden|
|The end||El fin|
|The paper||El papel|
Category 3 – Nouns that don’t end ‘o’ or ‘a’ and are feminine
Similar to category 2, here are some examples for Spanish nouns that don’t end in an ‘o’ or ‘a’ and are feminine.
|The woman||La mujer|
|The mother||La madre|
|The time||La vez|
|The part||La parte|
|The people||La gente|
|The afternoon||La tarde|
|The night||La noche|
|The truth||La verdad|
|The street||La calle|
|The light||La luz|
Category 4 – Nouns that reverse category 1
Just to make life annoying, here are some examples of feminine nouns that end in an ‘o’ and masculine nouns that end in an ‘a’.
|The motorbike||La moto|
|The photo||La foto|
|The radio||La radio|
|The hand||La mano|
|The libido||La libido|
|The day||El día|
|The map||El mapa|
|The comet||El cometa|
|The idiot||El idiota|
|The planet||El planeta|
Before moving on, I’ll point out that the first few examples in this category, nouns that end in ‘o’ but are feminine, are quite rare. You pretty much have the whole list for the Spanish language there above.
Moreover, these first few nouns are actually short for longer nouns including ‘la motocicleta‘, ‘la fotografía‘, and ‘la radiofonía‘. This also helps explain why they are feminine.
There are more female nouns that end in ‘o’ but they are different. You’ll see what I mean in the next section.
Category 5 – Nouns for profession that change with gender
Spanish nouns for profession behave in two basic ways: for some professions, the ending of the noun changes depending on whether the person is male or female, for other professions you change the article but not the noun.
Here are some examples where the noun changes:
|The chef (male)||El cocinero|
|The chef (female)||La cocinera|
|The architect (male)||El arquitecto|
|The architect (female)||La arquitecta|
|The lawyer (male)||El abogado|
|The lawyer (female)||La abogada|
|The teacher (male)||El profesor|
|The teacher (female)||La profesora|
|The translator (male)||El traductor|
|The translator (female)||La traductora|
Category 6 – Nouns for profession that don’t change with gender
Here are some examples where you only change the article:
|The model (male)||El modelo|
|The model (female)||La modelo|
|The soldier (male)||El soldado|
|The soldier (female)||La soldado|
|The florist (male)||El florista|
|The florist (female)||La florista|
|The dentist (male)||El dentista|
|The dentist (female)||La dentista|
|The athlete (male)||El atleta|
|The athlete (female)||La atleta|
Category 7 – Nouns ending in ‘ma’
There are lots and lots of Spanish nouns that end in the letters ‘ma’, and they are almost always male.
This category is a handy trick to keep in mind.
Here are some examples:
|The drama||El drama|
|The language||El idioma|
|The program||El programa|
|The topic||El tema|
|The dilemma||El dilema|
|The climate||El clima|
|The system||El sistema|
|The diagram||El diagrama|
|The ghost||El fantasma|
|The enigma||El enigma|
Here are two exceptions for this rule: la cama (the bed) and la forma (the form).
As an aside, the word ‘enigma’ is a good word to use to practice your pronunciation, as it sounds almost exactly the same in both English and Spanish.
Category 8 – Nouns ending in ‘sión’ or ‘ción’
The words in this category are easy to remember as they are mostly made up of English-Spanish cognates.
These words are all female.
Here are some examples:
|The action||La acción|
|The atention||La atención|
|The celebration||La celebración|
|The condition||La condición|
|The coversation||La conversación|
|The information||La información|
|The translation||La traducción|
|The room||La habitación|
|The decision||La decisión|
|The television||La televisión|
There are a few male exceptions, but they are very low-frequency words. So low, in fact, they don’t even show up in my 50,000-word Spanish-Spanish dictionary.
Category 9 – Nouns ending in ‘dad’ or ‘tad’ or ‘tud’
This category of nouns, that end in ‘dad’, ‘tad’ or ‘tud’, are also all female.
Here are some examples:
|The city||La ciudad|
|The university||La universidad|
|The necessity||La necesidad|
|The reality||La realidad|
|The velocity||La velocidad|
|The difficulty||La dificultad|
|The liberty||La libertad|
|The attitude||La actitud|
|The gratitude||La gratitud|
|The request||La solicitud|
As an aside on this category, the word universidad is one of my favourite words in the Spanish language. I just love how it sounds!!
Category 10 – Just weird
This last category is made up of nouns that make their own rules.
These nouns behave in a very unusual way, mostly due to issues involved in their pronunciation.
|The water||El agua|
|The soul||El alma|
|The hunger||El hambre|
All three of these nouns are actually feminine. But, when you say them with an article it needs to be el. This is to solve the problem of the ‘a’ in la stringing together with the ‘a’ in agua, alma, or the first syllable in hambre since the letter ‘h’ is almost always silent in Spanish.
When you combine these nouns with Spanish adjectives, you can see that they are feminine:
English: The cold water.
Español: El agua fría.
English: The willing soul.
Español: El alma dispuesta.
English: The intense hunger.
Español: El hambre intensa.
What does your intuition tell you about masculine and feminine Spanish nouns?
Remembering these rules is about long term exposure and practice. Try to use a noun from each of these 10 categories over the next few weeks and months and the return to the post to test your knowledge.
What are your thoughts on masculine and feminine Spanish nouns? What are your thoughts on language learning and the role of intuition? Please let me know in the comments below.