Gender & Number Agreement in Spanish
To most English speakers, gender is more about politics than it is a grammar topic. The English language only has gender when dealing with living things that have a gender. Some animals, including humans, have separate words for the male and female of the species: man, woman, boy, girl, bull, cow, rooster and hen, for instance. The English language bases all considerations of gender on the nature of the noun in question. There are famous poetic exceptions to this statement, such as calling ships “she” and so forth, but let us leave them in the lofty realms of invention.
Grammatical gender makes no sense. Don’t try to find any logic in why the word for a table (mesa) is feminine but desk (escritorio) is masculine. Grammatical gender is arbitrary, in a way reminiscent of the Biblical passage in which we read that God brought the animals to Adam and whatever he called them became their names. We have no better explanation as to why or how gender has been assigned to nouns. The gender of nouns is invariable; that is, it does not depend on, nor is it affected by the gender of the speaker or owner. A woman may wear pants (pantalones) but the word is masculine and, as in English, always plural. Other nouns that are always plural are anteojos and gafas (eyeglasses and sunglasses). A man wears a shirt (camisa) which is grammatically feminine. The arbitrariness of the gender of nouns frustrates many English speaking learners of Spanish, but it need not.
Let’s get the big picture and then narrow it down a bit for beginners.
Most Spanish nouns end in either an unstressed a or an unstressed o. Those ending in a are mostly feminine. Those ending in o are mostly masculine. Exceptions include la mano (the hand) and el día (the day or the morning). Other exceptions are words ending in –ma, -pa or –ta that are of Greek origin. They are few, but frequent: problema, tema, drama, programa, mapa, and planeta, which are all masculine.
Spanish nouns that begin with a stressed a (whether or not the accent is written) and end in a are feminine, but when they are singular, they take a masculine singular article. Examples: el hacha, but las hachas. Likewise, el águila becomes las águilas, el agua becomes las aguas. When modified by an adjective, the adjective must always be feminine, singular or plural, e.g., el agua fría and las aguas frías.
Spanish nouns ending in –ción, -sión, -dad and -tud are all feminine. Most of them have English counterparts in words ending in –tion, -ty and –tude, almost all of which are cognate with English too (that means they have the same meaning). Not all words ending in -ión, however are feminine (note above that it's the c or s before -ión that tells you a word is feminine). Three common words, gorrión, avión and camión are masculine: sparrow, plane and truck. You're not likely to have need to talk about sparrows, but airplanes and trucks are pretty common in everyday life!
The fastest and least painful way to master the gender of nouns is when you first encounter them. If they happen to be on your vocabulary list, precede them, according to their gender, with el or la in front of them if they are singular, and los or las in front of them, if they are plural. If your book does not tell you whether the word is masculine or feminine, ask your teacher or learn to look them up in a Spanish-English dictionary. The best Spanish textbooks do this in their glossaries or word lists in some manner or another. But when you study vocabulary, don’t simply repeat mesa, for instance. Say la mesa. You’ll then be reinforcing the gender of the word – almost painlessly.
Now that we've covered the way articles agree with the nouns they point to, we can demonstrate agreement where adjectives are concerned. A noun is almost always used with an article before it and often with an adjective after it. Remember this: the noun is the center of this relationship and the articles and adjectives must agree with the noun in gender and number. Unlike nouns, articles and adjectives can morph – they are like chameleons in that they take on the gender and number of the noun they are associated with. Thus, we say: la rosa blanca and el caballo pardo or el hombre alto and la mujer alta. Can you see how the articles in Spanish precede the noun and the descriptive adjectives (color adjectives being perfect examples) follow the noun? Let's make the previous examples plural, that is, if rosa becomes rosas and caballo becomes caballos, then we must make the articles and adjectives agree with the noun. Remember, the noun determines the gender of the modifiers; thus we have: las rosas blancas and los caballos pardos.
Finally, if there are two descriptive adjectives modifying one noun, the simplest and most common solution is to put them both after the noun with y (and) in between. Thus, the two pretty, green birds would be rendered los dos pájaros bonitos y verdes.
- Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.