You will, I’m sure, be familiar with the idea that nouns and proper nouns (names) are words that identify things – objects, people, etc. In Spanish they all have a gender – some of which make obvious sense, but others may seem a little randomly assigned!
In linguistic terms, gender affects the ‘article’ used, i.e. how you say ‘the’ or ‘a/an’, as well as any adjectives that help add detail to (or ‘qualify’) the noun. So it’s important to have a grasp of gender and how it works in Spanish, as with any other language.
Remember that even in English we still have a few instances of gender affecting nouns, e.g. brother/sister, actor/actress, waiter/waitress, him/her, and even refer to some objects (e.g. boats) and countries traditionally as feminine.
This section explores and explains issues to do with nouns and their gender, along with the ‘definite’ and ‘indefinite’ articles. You’ll also find out about how, in Spanish, you refer to ‘it’ and ‘things’, i.e. referring to something unknown or to something you’ve already spoken about.
On gender and number
Like French, Italian and many other languages, Spanish nouns have a masculine and feminine gender. In general, although with significant exceptions, if a word ends in ‘a’, d or z it is usually feminine, whilst if it ends in ‘o’ it is probably masculine. Also worth noting is the fact that words ending in ‘ión’ tend to be feminine, like lección and información– lesson and information in Spanish. So you’ll see in some cases it is fairly easy to guess the gender.
Nouns ending in other letters, whether vowels or consonants, vary in terms of what gender they are. Some nouns listed in this section follow the ‘rules’ about gender, others are noteworthy examples of deviating from the norm.
As a personal note on gender, it’s worth remembering that, in grammar, gender is simply a way of assigning rules to different words – it need not relate to any intrinsic male or female characteristics an object displays. In fact some languages, such as Basque, have additional ways to assign gender based on whether something is animate or inanimate. Something worth considering is the rationale (contestable of course– my thoughts only) for gender being assigned to different types of word in Spanish (or indeed other Romance languages).
It is noticeable that Spanish nouns describing nurturing, guidance or development tend to be feminine – hence the point above about words ending in ~ión like dirección, educación, administración. This, interestingly is largely the same in French. Words ending in ~idad, too, tend to be feminine, like city (la ciudad), university (una universidad) or property (la propiedad).
Other nouns in common use may have an alternative ending depending on whether the subject is male or female – a dog (or dogs), for example is el perro (los perros) but if you are referring to a dog of known gender, you may use la perra for a specific female dog (or bitch). A tourist (turista) may be male or female, so may use un or una, el or la accordingly.
So if in doubt about a gender think about the origins of the word and give it a shot. You may just be right. And with experience you’ll spot other ‘rules’ of your own to follow.
Plurals of nouns are fairly straightforward in both Spanish and French, adding ~s to nouns with a vowel at the end, or ~es to those ending with a consonant. There are some words which, in English are accepted as plural, such as ‘people’ which in Spanish is singular (la gente – people), and treated as singular when followed by a verb, e.g. la gente va … – ‘the people are going ….’ . Words ending in a stressed ~ión lose the stress mark and add ~es in the plural. Nouns ending in z often will exchange the z for a c, such as el lapiz / los lapices (pencils), la luz / las luces (lights).
A mixed gender group of people, adults, children, sons and daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. always defaults to the masculine. So if you’re referring to a group of boys and girls (niños y niñas) or (chicos y chicas), you’d usually say just niños or chicos.
Some useful examples
la mujer – woman
un(a) profesor(a) – teacher / lecturer
una maestra – teacher
una entrenadora – trainer / coach
una hotelera – hotelier
una viajera – a traveller
la gestión – management (the field/activity)
la dirección . la administración – management (tasks)
la educación (física )- (physical) education
la formación – work experience / training period
la planificación – planning
la ciudad – city
la hospitalidad – hospitality (welcome)
la actividad física – physical activity
la – hospitality (business)
una estrategia – strategy
una experiencia – an experience / event
una empresa – a business (enterprise)
una optativa – option
una pregunta – question
las ciencias – science (the field)
las practicas externas – work experience (practical)
Variable: (some occupations also of Greek origin)
un(a) turista – a tourist
un(a) atleta – athlete
un(a) dentista – dentist
el agua – note that when the stress falls on the first syllable of a feminine noun like agua, hambre, which begins in a/ha, the article el is used. It is simply easier to say! But the noun is still treated as feminine, e.g. el agua fria – cold water
la policía – police force / policewoman (el policía is a policeman)
el hombre – man
un profesor – teacher / lecturer
el maestro – teacher
un entrenador – trainer / coach
un hotelero – hotelier
un viajero – a traveller
el idioma – language ; el mapa – map
el problema – problem ; el tema – subject / topic
el dilema – dilemma ; el programa – programme
un diagrama – diagram ; un sistema – system
el viaje – journey
el negocio / comercio – business (the activity of)
el mercado (turístico) – (tourist) market
el comportamiento – behaviour
el trabajo – work / job
el ocio – leisure ; el juego – play ; el recreo – recreation
el deporte – sport
un evento – event
el turismo – tourism
el destino – destination
el horario – timetable
el título (de grado) – (degree) award
el máster / doctorado – masters / doctorate
el clima – climate
el busca – pager (una busca is a search)
el final – end (la final is the last match in a championship)
el manana – the future (la manana is the morning)
Articles and ‘It’.
Few words in the English language are as useful and yet so often ambiguous as the words ‘it’ and ‘thing’, as well as the plural ‘them’, although ‘the’ and ‘a’ must get the award for the most often used. Yet when we come across a speaker of a foreign language, or try to learn a language ourselves, these useful words cause considerable confusion – when to use them and when not, where to put them in the sentence, if it is appropriate. It is a perennial problem for those learning English, so perhaps it’s only fair we should struggle a bit getting to grips with it.
The thing is we seldom think about whether to use ‘a’ – the indefinite article or ‘the’ – the definite article. We just use them without giving them names, and we usually adapt ‘a’ to ‘an’ without thinking when we meet a vowel, but might be a little unsure when faced with an ‘h’ – ‘an hotel’, for instance. We say the definite article ‘the’ differently too, probably again without thinking – think about ‘the apple’ and ‘the banana’: the definite article sound different, unless of course you are emphasising ‘the banana’ – the one-and-only banana, the most important, top banana. Is it making sense?
So, in Spanish there are rules about when to use and not to use the definite (el, la, los, las) and indefinite (un, una, unos, unas) articles as follows:
Articles: ‘the’, ‘a/an’ and when no article applies.
The: el, la, los, las
- Generalisation – ‘Pensiones are cheaper than hotels’: Los pensiones estan mas baratos que los hoteles’
- Abstract concepts – ‘Cinema is dead’: El cine es muerto
- Public places or institutions: la universidad, la iglesia, el ayuntamiento, el hospital, la plaza mayor
- Time expressions, seasons and days of the week: la primavera (Spring), el miercoles (on wednesday), el año próximo (next year)
- Titles of a person or persons: Prime Minister – El Primer Ministro ; Mr Perez – El señor Perez ; Los Perez – the Perez Family
- Names qualified by an adjective: Old Barcelona – El viejo Barcelona ; The great Pele El gran Pele
- Percentages: el veinte por ciento (20%)
- ‘Per’ unit, e.g. weight: Dos euros el kilo (2 Euros/kilo); 3 veces al día – 3 times per day.
- Possession: Parts of the body or articles of clothing when belonging to the subject of the sentence (where in English you would say ‘my’ or ‘his’ for example) : Ha perdido los zapatos – he/she has lost his/her shoes.
A/some: un, una, unos/as
- Specifying a/an or some, rather than a specific number; e.g. hay unos estudiantes en la oficina – there are some students in the office. However in conversation hay estudiantes en la oficina (there are students in the office) may also be used, i.e. without using the article.
- Abstract noun ‘qualified’ by an adjective; e.g. un lección fácil – ‘an easy lesson’ . Such ‘abstract nouns’ refer to a general concept rather than a specific object or thing. So ‘a lesson’ or ‘a car’ could refer to any lesson or any car, so is considered abstract.
The indefinite article, however, is NOT used in the following contexts:
- before an occupation, unless qualified by an adjective e.g. soy profesor or es estudiante are correct, but so is Es un buen professor – he is a good teacher.
- before a nationality, religious or political persuasion, e.g. eres ingles , es socialista or soy católico are all correct
- before medio, mil or cien (half a…; a thousand; a hundred) e.g. half a kilo – medio kilo
- before otro (another) or cierto (certain/specific) e.g. another flight – otro vuelo, certain people – ciertas personas
- before ¡que! (what a…!) , tal (such a …) e.g. what (a) heat – ¡que calor!
IT/ Them: Lo
Lo (the neuter article) is used in a number of ways, including to turn an adjective into an abstract noun. So, for example, the adjective importante is normally used to ‘qualify’ or add detail to a noun, like ‘person’, ‘decision’, ‘building’. However, using lo this adjective can be used in a similar way to our use of ‘thing’.
‘the important thing’ therefore becomes lo importante
‘the best thing’ – lo mejor ‘the worst thing’ – lo peor
‘the difficult thing’ – lo difícil ‘the easy thing’ – lo fácil
Other ways you will find lo being used include:
- Qualifying a verb : Similarly to above, but with an adverb.
- she is studying the best she can – (ella) estudia lo mejor puede
- ‘What’ or ‘that which’
- What I want to do is… – Lo que quiero hacer es…
‘It’ when referring to a noun has the same gender as the ‘thing’ you’re referring to. So where in English you would simply use ‘it’, the object or idea (the noun) will have a gender – la for a feminine noun and lo for one that is masculine. For example, lo hago – ‘I’m doing it’; La ciudad es muy bonita – la me encanta. The city is very pretty – I love it.
In ‘It is …’ phrases like ´it´s raining´ or ´it could be’, this takes a different verb form, Examples include – a verb for ‘to be raining’: llover – llueve (it is raining) and reflexive verbs for ‘to be possible’: poderse – se puede (it is possible).