Sustantivos en español

Spanish nouns

Spanish Nouns are Gendered

English is gender-neutral, Spanish is not. This means that nouns in Spanish language are accompanied by their very own feminine or masculine article, as in la mesa (the table) and el hombro (the shoulder). If you underestimate the importance of gender, then you may find yourself telling your friend that you have an infectious disease (el cólera) instead of explaining that you feel angry (la cólera). And, believe me, nobody wants that! 

Get it right (almost) every time with these general rules and patterns:

Feminine Nouns

Feminine nouns almost always end in -a. The first words that come to mind? Amiga, casa, día… oops! El día is one of Spanish’s long list of exceptions that we will explore more in-depth below. For now, let’s go back to our list of feminine nouns, and gather up a list of clues to look for. 

Feminine nouns generally:

  • End in -a, as in la aventura (adventure)
  • End in -ción or -sión, as in la estación (season) and la diversión (funtimes)
  • End in -dad, -tad, -tud, as in la cuidad (city), la libertad (freedom) and la juventud (youth)
  • End in -ed, as in la pared (wall)
  • End in -itis, as in la conjuntivitis (conjunctivitis/pink-eye)
  • End in -iz, as in la matriz (matrix)
  • End in -sis, as in la tesis (thesis)
  • End in -umbre, as in la costumbre (custom/habit)
  • Name a mountain, like la sierra de Gredos

Masculine Nouns

Masculine nouns almost always end in -o. I won’t trick you with another exception since you already know that it’s soon to come! So, let’s move on to see which clues we can look for when trying to decide a noun’s gender:

Masculine Nouns generally :

  • End in -o, as in el carro (car)
  • End with an accented vowel, as in el hindú (Hindu)
  • End in -or, as in el cazador (hunter)
  • End in -aje, as in el traje (suit)
  • Name a river, lake, or ocean, such as el lago Atitlán, and el océano pacífico

Exceptional Nouns

The dreaded exceptions have finally reared their ugly heads! Luckily, they’re not as bad as they seem. It just requires a set of flashcards and more than 100 hours of pure practice! All joking aside, rather than waste your time memorizing innumerable words, focus on this list of typical patterns to watch out for when deciding the gender of the Spanish sustantivo:

  • Some nouns are gender-neutral, like el/la presidente (president), el/la cantante (singer), and el/la elefante (elphant)
  • Words that end in -ista can be feminine or masculine, as in el dentista (male dentist) and la dentista (female dentist)
  • Words with a Greek origin that end in -a and -ma are masculine, as in el planeta (planet) and el problema (problem)
  • Nouns that combine to create compound nouns are masculine, as in el quitaesmalte (nail polish remover)
  • Some words are simply exceptions without a pattern

Common Gender Exceptions

If the idea of making flashcards excites you—because it’s actually a highly effective way to study—then try these 16 gender-bending nouns to start with:

El clima (climate)El dilema (dilemma)El diploma (diploma)El drama (drama)
El enigma (enigma)El idioma (language)La mano (hand)El mapa (map)
El plasma (plasma)El poema (poem)El problema (problem)El programa (program)
El síntoma (symptom)El sistema (system)El sofá (sofa)El tema (theme)

Nouns Change Meaning

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t want to confuse our Spanish-speaking friends by mixing up the gender on certain nouns. While it’s not essential to master this step right away, it’s always useful to have a general idea of what not to say. Here are a few of the boldest changes in the definitions of the same word with different genders:

  • el cólera is cholera, la cólera is anger
  • el cura is male priest, la cura is cure
  • el guardia is the policeman or male guard, la guardia means vigilance, policewoman or female guard
  • el guía is the male guide, la guía is the guidebook or female guide
  • el mañana refers to the near future, la mañana means tomorrow or morning
  • el papa is the pope and la papa is potato
  • la radio means the radio, el radio is radius or radium

Definite and Indefinite articles

All this time, we’ve been using la or el, meaning “the,” to denote the gender of a word. These powerful little words are called definite articles. Like English, Spanish also uses indefinite articles. These little powerhouse noun-definers mean “a,” or “an” and they are un and una. (These article categories also include plural nouns, as we will explore in the following section.)

Definite Article

The definite article acts in Spanish just as it does in English—it defines specificity. Imagine someone asks you if you want the last potato left on the serving plate at dinner, and you say:

  • Yes, I want the potato.
  • Si, yo quiero la papa. 

Indefinite Article 

The indefinite article refers to a general, less specific noun. While at a friend’s house, they ask you if you want anything, and you say:

  • I want a drink.
  • Yo quiero una bebida.

Let’s take a look at the definite and indefinite articles with two other nouns:

Definite DefiniteIndefiniteIndefinite
La bruja (the witch)El búho (the owl)Una bruja (a witch)Un búho (an owl)

Plural Nouns and Their Articles

I’ve got good news. No more moose, meese, goose, geese nonsense! English is full of random, unexplainable exceptions to singular and plural nouns. Fortunately, Spanish is clear-cut when it comes to making the switch. Along with some basic guidelines for changing the noun itself, you need to know how the articles change.

Plural Articles

  • El → los
  • La → las
  • Un → unos
  • Una → unas  

Note that the Spanish plural definite articles (los, las) still mean “the,” while the plural indefinite articles (unos, unas) mean “some.”

Plural Noun Endings

  • If it ends in a vowel, add s (la amiga, las amigas)
  • If it doesn’t end in a vowel, add es (el capitán, los capitanes)
  • If it ends in ú or í, add es (el bambú, los bambúes)
  • If it ends in z, change to -ces (el pez, los peces)

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