The basic guide to gender rules in Spanish

The basic guide to gender rules in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 4, 2022

Did you know words have gender in Spanish? You may be a bit confused by the concept of grammatical gender in the Spanish language. Particularly if your native language doesn’t have gendered words. 

Since you’re serious about learning, it’s important that you pay extra attention to Spanish gender rules. Trust us, you will get funny looks if you order uno margarito instead of una margarita during your holiday in Mexico.

Begin your journey by focusing on the gender rules of the following four word categories in Spanish:

  1. Nouns
  2. Articles
  3. Adjectives
  4. Pronouns

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1. Nouns

The simplest tip to guess the gender of a word is to look at its ending. In Spanish, most words are either masculine or feminine. In most cases, female words will end with an ‘-a’ and male words will end with an ‘-o’. But not always.

Let’s start with nouns. Nouns are often the core of a sentence. Most have a gender. The moon (luna), for example, is female.

You can follow these basic rules to start identifying the gender of a noun:

  • Feminine: ending in -a,-ía, -ción, -sión, -dad, -tad, -za
    Cama, cría, canción, pasión, maldad, amistad, taza
  • Masculine: ending in -o, -aje, -ambre, -or, -ín. They may also end in an accented vowel like –á or –ú
    Lazo, paisaje, estambre, tambor, trampolín, tabú

Some nouns are arbitrary. These are irregular cases. For example, la mano (hand) is female. El agua (water) is male. Why? Perhaps it is a remnant from Latin, but not all linguistic details are clear. Not even the Real Academia Española can answer these questions. We can thank the Spanish language gods for this.

2. Articles

There are eight articles in Spanish. The gender of a noun will affect the article that goes with it. Unlike in English, the article will also be affected by whether the noun is plural.

Definite articles (the):

  • Singular and plural feminine: la and las.
    Examples: la casa (the house), las casas (the houses)
  • Singular and plural masculine: el and los
    Examples: el temblor (the earthquake), los temblores (the earthquakes)

Indefinite articles (a/an/some):

  • Singular and plural feminine: una and unas
    Examples: una niña (a girl), unas niñas (some girls)
  • Singular and plural masculine: un and unos
    Examples: un vaso (a glass), unos vasos (some glasses)

Gender-neutral articles

For centuries, a group of people or nouns of mixed gender has been referred to as male. If you have 99 women, it is ellas. If you have 2 men, ellos. If you have 99 women and just one man, it has traditionally been ellos. The male gender historically took precedence. 

This linguistic practice is being challenged by linguistic movements in the current gender-neutral times. Progressives use the article les for mixed groups. For noun-article agreement, the ending is also changed to -es. Don’t get freaked out if you see les compañeres (the colleagues) instead of los compañeros.

3. Adjectives

Do adjectives in Spanish have gender? Yes, nearly every word does. Adjectives will also be affected by the noun’s gender and number:

  • Singular female: ending in -a
    La larga carretera (the long road). The adjective is larga (long)
  • Plural female: ending in -as
    Las bellas cascadas (the beautiful waterfalls). The adjective is bellas
  • Singular male: ending in -o
    El pájaro lento (the slow bird). The adjective is lento
  • Plural male: ending in -os
    Los vestidos cortos (the short dresses). The adjective is cortos
  • Adjectives ending in -e(s) don’t change according to the noun
    La casa grande (the big house) or las casas grandes (the big houses)

With the rules above, we can make a gendered sentence using the article + adjective + noun. 

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4. Pronouns

Pronouns are used to replace a noun or name. We don’t have to say ‘Lara is my best friend. Lara will come along.’ That sounds like an artificial intelligence robot. Instead, we can say ‘Lara is my best friend. She’ll come along.’ ‘She’ replaces ‘Lara’.

Here are the most common gendered pronouns.

Personal pronouns: 

  • Nosotras (female ‘we’)
    Nosotras no vamos (We are not going)
  • Nosotros (male or mixed ‘we’)
    Nosotros sí vamos (We are going)
  • Ella(s) (‘she’/female ‘they’)
    Ella es bonita (She is pretty).
  • Él/ellos (‘he’/masculine ‘they’)
    Ellos no quieren venir (They don’t want to come)

Possessive pronouns are affected by the gender of the noun they refer to:

  • Mío/a (masculine/feminine ‘mine’)
    La pizza es mía (The pizza is mine)
  • Tuyo/a (masculine/feminine ‘yours’)
    Este celular no es tuyo (This phone is not yours)
  • Nuestro/a (masculine/feminine ‘ours’)
    Nuestra casa no es muy grande (Our home is not very big)
  • Suyo/a (masculine/feminie ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘theirs’ and formal ‘yours’)
    La computadora es suya, señor (The computer is yours, sir)
  • Tip: add an ‘-s’ at the end for plural

Demonstrative pronouns are also affected by the noun’s gender:

  • Masculine and neutral singular: este, ese, aquel (this, that, the other one)
    Este carro me gusta (I like this car).
  • Masculine plural: estos, esos, aquellos (these, those, those other ones)
    Esos zapatos están bien (those shoes are fine)
  • Feminine singular and plural: esta(s), esa(s), aquella(s)
    Quiero esta pintura (I want this painting) or quiero esas pinturas (I want those paintings)

Gender-neutral pronouns in Spanish

Just like other languages, Spanish is adapting to a more inclusive world. You might see the -o or -a being replaced for an -e. As mentioned earlier, this applies to making neutral articles and nouns also. 

For example, elle está bien (they singular are doing fine) to speak about a gender non-binary person. Or ¿quieres venir con nosotres? (Do you wanna come with us?) to refer to a non-gender-specific group of people. 

This language is aimed at both inclusivity for gender-non-binary people as well as non-acceptance of non-male erasure in male-dominated patriarchal social structures.

Start learning

Learning gender in Spanish might be overwhelming at first. Stick to these basic Spanish gender rules and you will get a hang of it. Learn new vocabulary. Make sentences with the new nouns you learn. Play around with your adjectives and nouns. In no time, you will be able to enjoy una margarita with Lara and your other compañeres.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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