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What is Word Gender?
When we talk about something being masculine or feminine in English, we think of people. The words "couch" or "tree" do not carry any sort of gender in our language, they are simply things. In Italian, however, every noun (a person, place, or thing) has a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. It is important to keep in mind that this is just a grammatical distinction, and nothing more, so saying that a pen is feminine and a clock is masculine does not mean anything outside the realm of grammar; the distinction simply tells us how to use the word in various situations.
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How to Tell them Apart
As you might imagine, the gender of some nouns is easy to guess. The word for grandfather, nonno, is masculine, and the word for aunt, zia, is feminine. But what about a backpack, a city, or a calculator? Remember that these are simply grammatical distinctions, and not cultural, so you cannot guess simply on the meaning of the word. Most Italian nouns will end in either an -o or an -a, and this is the biggest clue. While there are exceptions, the large majority of words ending in -o are masculine, such as tavolo (table), and the large majority of those ending in -a are feminine, such as sedia (chair). The nouns that don't end in -o or -a usually fit into one of two cases, those ending in -e, and those borrowed from other languages, like the words bar or sport.
For those words ending in -e, you must learn the gender of the word when you first learn it. Later in your studies you may be able to use context clues to determine the gender, such as any modifying words, but when learning words from a vocabulary list, you must memorize the gender as you learn the word. Words of foreign origin, such as computer, are almost always masculine, so if you are not sure, that is your best bet.
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"A" and "An" in Italian
In English, we have the two words "a" and "an", meaning the same thing. This word is called the indefinite article, and exists in some form in many languages, Italian included. To distinguish between the two in English, we simply look at the word following the article --does it begin with a vowel sound? If so, then use "an," but otherwise, just use "a," giving us "a clock" but "an airplane." In Italian, there are actually four indefinite articles: un, uno, una, and un' ("un" followed by an apostrophe). To know which one to use with a word, first we must know its gender. The articles un and uno are used with masculine nouns, and the articles una and un' are used with feminine nouns.
The majority of masculine nouns use un to mean "a" or "an." The exception, those that use uno, are words that begin with the letter z, such as zaino (backpack), or words that begin with the letter s and another consonant, such as stereo (stereo). So looking at three masculine words, we say:
- un libro (a book)
- un giornale (a newspaper)
- uno studente (a male student)
Feminine nouns typically use the article una to mean "a" or "an." The exception, those that use un', are words that begin with a vowel, such as amica (female friend). So looking at three feminine words, we say:
- una farmacia (a pharmacy)
- una banca (a bank)
- un'amica (a female friend; notice that there is no space after the apostrophe)
That's all there is to saying "a" and "an" in Italian! Now you have a use for learning the gender of words, and can start to sound more like a natural speaker.