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Spanish Grammar: Figuring Out Grammatical Gender

Beware of exceptions! Because there are…a lot.
Spanish Grammar: Figuring Out Grammatical Gender

Why is a car masculine but a house feminine? There are some questions we’ll never really know the answer to. When you first start learning Spanish, grammatical gender can seem arbitrary and confusing. And it’s true that there’s no logical way to divide the world into masculine and feminine. But fortunately, Spanish grammatical gender does have some rules you can follow to figure out when you need el and when you need la.

Here, we’ll go through some of the most common giveaways that a word is masculine or feminine, as well as the cases when Spanish grammatical gender can switch for a single word.

Spanish Nouns That Are Masculine

-o

We’ll start with the most obvious, which is that most words that end in “o” are going to be masculine. 

Examples

el carro the car
el año the year
el estado the state
el mundo the world
el fuego the fire

Exceptions

la moto the motorcycle
la radio the radio
la mano the hand
la foto the photo
la disco the disco

While some exceptions (like la mano) are just exceptions, many words that seemingly end in -o are actually shortenings of other words. La disco is short for la discoteca, and la foto is short for la fotografía.

LONERS

One mnemonic device for learning masculine endings is LONERS. The idea here is that words that end in any of the letters L-O-N-E-R-S tend to be masculine. We covered “o” above because it really requires its own section, but this is a good general rule of thumb. One warning, though: the “S” in LONERS refers to nouns that are singular, like el mes. You can’t apply it to plural nouns or that would mean that every word would be masculine.

el sol the sun
el tiempo the time
el pan the bread
el hambre the hunger
el color the color
el mes the month

Exceptions

la sal the salt
la polio the polio
la vacación the vacation
la serie the series
la flor the flower
la tesis the thesis

We know, we know, the exceptions are very frustrating. But really, the LONERS rule will work for you almost every time. Memorizing just the exceptions will be a lot easier than memorizing every single word in the Spanish language.

-ta, -ma and -pa

As you’ll see in a moment, most words that end in -a are feminine, but there are exceptions. Fortunately, even the exceptions have rules.

Examples

el problema the problem
el mapa the map
el aroma the smell
el planeta the planet
el poema the poem

Exceptions

la dieta the diet
la tapa the lid
la crema the cream
la pluma the pen
la paloma the pigeon

For those interested in a little history, masculine Spanish nouns that end in -ta-pa and -ma tend to come from Greek originally. If you happen to have an excellent grasp on etymology, you’ll have a leg up!

Spanish Nouns That Are Feminine

-a

Despite the many exceptions noted above, a great majority of Spanish words that end in -a are feminine.

Examples

la cerveza the beer
la camisa the shirt
la cena the dinner
la guitarra the guitar
la lechuga the lettuce

Exceptions

el sofá the sofa
el tema the theme
el día the day
el idioma the language
el cometa the comet

While some of these exceptions just have to be memorized, you can scroll up and see that a lot of exceptions have their own rules in the -ta, -ma and -pa section.

-ión

One of the biggest exceptions to the LONERS rule we talked about for masculine nouns above is -ión. If a word ends with these three letters, you can be almost certain it’s a feminine noun.

la visión the vision
la ocasión the occasion
la nación the nation
la religión the religion
la repetición the repetition

Exceptions

el camión the truck
el avión the plane
el bastión the bastion

-z and -d

Unlike the masculine, there’s no fun acronym for feminine nouns. Maybe you could make up your own! Something like… ZAD?

Examples

la paz the peace
la cruz the cross
la vez the time
la salud the health
la juventud the youth

Exceptions

el arroz the rice
el lápiz the pencil
el pez the fish
el césped the grass
el ataúd the coffin

-ie-nte and -umbre

As we mention in the masculine section, many words that end in -e are masculine. But, more exceptions! These noun endings can tip you off that a noun is probably feminine.

Examples

la serie the series
la gente the people
la costumbre the habit
la legumbre the vegetable
la fuente the fountain

Exceptions

el puente the bridge
el restaurante the restaurant
el pie the foot

Spanish Nouns That Can Be Both Masculine And Feminine

While most nouns refer to objects and concepts that don’t have gender, there are also the nouns that do. “Uncle” and “aunt,” for example, are el tío and la tía. Whether it’s a good idea to split the world into two genders is a subject for a different article, but for now we’ll go through the various kinds of nouns that switch genders.

People

Talking about people, especially family members, often includes referring to gender.

English Masculine Feminine
the child el niño la niña
the grandparent el abuelo la abuela
the romantic partner el novio la novia
the friend el amigo la amiga
the young person el muchacho la muchacha
the man/the woman el señor la señora

Professions

Professions also refer to people, but are kind of their own subset. And they can be a little confusing because sometimes the noun endings change (the masculine el doctor and the feminine la doctora), but sometimes they don’t (the masculine el poeta and the feminine la poeta).

Examples

English Masculine Feminine
the student el estudiante la estudiante
the teacher el profesor la profesora
the politician el político la política
the pilot el piloto la pilota
the athlete el athleta la athleta
the director el director la directora

Animals

When it comes to the world of animals, things can get even more complicated. We’ll break it down into three basic groups.

Animals With A Regular Masculine And Feminine Form

English Masculine Feminine
the cat el gato la gata
the dog el perro la perra
the pig el cerdo la cerda
the bear el oso la osa
the rabbit el conejo la coneja
the monkey el mono la mona

In Spanish, the masculine form of these animals almost always takes precedence. You’re more likely to hear el gato when someone is talking about a generic cat, for example.

Animals With Irregular Masculine And Feminine Forms

English Masculine Feminine
the chicken el gallo la gallina
the tiger el tigre la tigresa
the bull/cow el toro la vaca

A lot of irregular forms happen among farm animals, for the same reason that English has a different word for “cow” and “bull.” The gender affects their role on the farm, so having different words comes in handy.

Animals With One Form

Some animals, particularly those you don’t come in contact with every day, tend to have one accepted Spanish grammatical gender. You could possibly say el tortugo to refer to a male turtle, but it might get you a weird look or two.

la ardilla the squirrel
el pájaro the bird
el hámster the hamster
el pez the fish
la rana the frog
la mosca the fly

Spanish Grammatical Gender Quiz

Got all that? Then it’s time to test yourself with a quick quiz we put together.

Learn more Spanish today.
Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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