Spanish Grammar Guide

Nouns (e.g.: cosa, perro, amor, mesa, mujer, hombre, etc.)

In this section: Description, Questions, Exercises


An Overview of Nouns:

Nouns are words that refer to people, e.g.: la hermana ("sister"), places, e.g.: la Francia ("France"), concrete things, e.g.: el libro ("book") and abstract notions, e.g.: el amor ("love"). The most important thing to know about nouns is that you need to learn as many as you can! We suggest you start with the most common ones (see Exercises below), make vocabulary lists, and read in Spanish to increase your knowledge of nouns.

When writing nouns in Spanish, you need to know how to spell them, how to indicate gender (masculine/feminine) and number (singular/plural).

Noun Gender: Masculine and Feminine

The words that correspond to a, the and some in English (i.e.: un, una, unos unas, el, los, la, las) agree with the nouns they precede in several ways. One important way is what is referred to as grammatical gender. All Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine. Except for living things with a biological sex, grammatical gender has nothing to do with biology, it’s just a way Spanish organizes nouns into groups. The important thing to remember is that if a noun is feminine, then determiners and adjectives that describe the noun must also be in their feminine form, e.g.:

  • una cosa bonita (feminine)
  • el libro largo (masculine)

In the first example given above, cosa is feminine, which is why it is preceded by una rather than un and followed by bonita rather than bonito. In the second, libro is masculine, so el and largo are used rather than la and larga.

The real challenge is knowing which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. It’s not always easy to determine a noun's gender without checking a dictionary. However, there are some general patterns in noun forms and endings that might be of help. What follow are guidelines to knowing which nouns are masculine and which are feminine.

Many nouns referring to people and animals have masculine (-o) and feminine (-a) endings, e.g.:

Masculine word Translation Feminine word Translation
el chico the boy la chica the girl
el niño the boy (child) la niña the girl (child)
un profesor a profesor (man) una profesora a profesor (woman)
el doctor the doctor (man) la doctora the doctor (woman)
el abuelo the grandfather la abuela the grandmother
un señor a man una señora a woman
un gato a cat (male) una gata a cat (female)
el perro the dog (male) la perra the dog (female)

Some nouns referring to people have the same masculine and feminine forms and indicate gender only on the articles and adjectives. Many of these nouns end in -ista or -e, e.g.:

Masculine word Translation Feminine word Translation
el estudiante the student (male) la estudiante the student (female)
un artista an artist (male) una artista an artist (female)
el pianista the pianist (male) la pianista the pianist (female)
el joven the young man la joven the young woman
el cantante the singer (male) la cantante the singer (female)
el agente the agent (male) la agente the agent (female)
un turista a tourist (male) una turista a tourist (female)

Other nouns referring to people or animals have very different words for the masculine and feminine forms, e.g.:

Masculine word Translation Feminine word Translation
un macho a male una hembra a female
un hombre a man una mujer a woman
un caballero a gentleman una dama a lady
el rey the king la reina the queen
el padre the father la madre the mother
un yerno a son-in-law una nuera a daughter-in-law
un gallo a rooster una gallina a hen

Nouns that end in -ción or-sión are feminine, e.g.:

  • una nación, una imaginación, una versión, una posición, etc.
  • Some nouns that end in -ión are masculine, e.g.: el avión, un camión

Most words ending in -dad, -tad and -tud are feminine, e.g.:

  • una universidad, la verdad, unas ciudades
  • la voluntad, la libertad
  • una actitud, la juventud

Most nouns ending in -a are feminine, e.g.:

  • las personas, una falda, la manzana
  • Some notable exceptions that end in -a but are masculine are el programa, un sistema, unos mapas, el a, el planeta

Most words ending in -o, -aje and -or are masculine, e.g.:

  • un teatro, el coraje, el esplendor
  • some notable exceptions that end in -o or -or but are feminine are una mano, una flor).

Gender and Pronunciation

Some nouns that are feminine appear with masculine singular determiners due to a pronunciation rule. These nouns begin with a stressed "a" sound, such as agua, arte, aula, alma and hambre (remember 'h' is always silent in Spanish). They appear with masculine singular determiners because Spanish wants to avoid the repetition of two stressed "a" sounds, e.g.:

  • un agua, el arte, el hambre, el alma, un aula NOT una agua, la arte, la hambre, la alma, una aula

These feminine nouns always appear with feminine adjectives, even though the singular determiner is masculine, e.g.:

  • un agua fría, el arte moderna, el hambre extrema, el alma perdida, un aula abierta NOT un agua frío, el arte moderno, el hambre extremo, el alma perdido, un aula abierto

In the plural, these nouns appear with feminine determiners and adjectives, because the two stressed /a/'s are separated by the -s of the plural determiner and no longer occur adjacent to one another, e.g.:

  • unas aguas frescas, las artes antiguas, las hambres extremas, las almas perdidas, unas aulas abiertas

If the feminine noun begins with an unstressed "a" sound, use the normal feminine singular articles, e.g.:

  • la arena (stressed "e"), la harina (stressed "i"), la aspirina (stressed second "i")

Gender and Meaning

A relatively small number of words change meaning depending on their gender, e.g.:

Masculine word Translation Feminine word Translation
un libro a book una libra a pound
un mango a mango una manga a sleeve
el derecho law, (human) right) la derecha right (direction)
el lomo the back of an animal la loma the hill
el punto the dot, period, stitch la punta the tip, point
el puerto the (sea) port la puerta the door
un bando a faction una banda a band

Some nouns can also change meaning depending on whether they appear with a masculine or feminine determiner. These nouns do not change their spelling, e.g.:

Masculine word Translation Feminine word Translation
el papa the pope la papa the potato
el pez the fish la pez the tar
el mañana the future la mañana the morning
el frente the front la frente the forehead
el corte the cut la corte the court
el capital the capital (money) la capital the capital (city)
el orden the order (neatness) la orden the order (command)

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Whenever you learn a new noun, make sure you also learn whether or not it is preceded by el/un (masculine) or la/una(feminine). Take note whether a feminine noun begins with a stressed "a" and if so, use masculine singular determiners el/un (but all other modifiers in feminine form).

Noun Number: Singular and Plural

Like English, Spanish explicitly indicates when there is a plural noun (i.e.: more than one), e.g.: Los amigos, los jóvenes. The most common way to indicate plural is with an -s (for words ending in a vowel) or -es (for words ending in a consonant) at the end of the noun.

  • algunas cosas, tres carros, muchos zapatos
  • unos papeles, varios jamones, seis caracoles

Remember that any words that modify a plural noun (determiners, adjectives) must also be plural. Likewise, words that describe singular nouns must also be in their singular form. This is called number agreement, e.g.:

  • la niña buena, algún libro interesante, un hombre honesto
  • unos niños buenos, las papas sabrosas, muchos árboles altos

Irregular Plural Nouns

There are some patterns to forming plural nouns that don't follow the regular pattern, including:

Nouns that end in unstressed -es or -is do not change form from the singular to the plural, only the article indicates singular or plural, e.g.:

  • el análisis/los análisis
  • el martes/los martes
  • el miércoles/los miércoles
  • la crisis/las crisis

Nouns that end in -z have a spelling change when in plural. The z changes to c when -es is added, e.g.:

  • el pez/los peces
  • el lápiz/los lápices
  • la actriz/las actrices
  • la matriz/las matrices

The plural of nouns ending in an accented vowel followed by -n or -s is formed by adding -es and eliminating the accent, e.g.:

  • la conección/las conecciones
  • el interés/los intereses
  • un botín/los botines

A few nouns that end in -n and have stress on the penultimate (second-last) syllable in the singular need an accent in the plural to preserve the original pronunciation of stress, e.g.:

  • el joven/los jóvenes
  • el examen/los exámenes
  • el crimen/los crímenes

Plural of Compound Nouns

When two nouns or a noun and adjective are joined in Spanish, the plural is marked on the end of the compound, e.g.:

  • las telarañas ("spider webs")
  • los matamoscas ("fly swatters")

The singular and plural of last names are the same, do NOT add plural endings, e.g.:

  • los García, los Reynoso, los Nadasdi, los Sinclair, NOT Los Garcías

Common Anglicisms to Avoid

*el nombre means "name" (use el número for "number").

*la asistencia means "the attendance", NOT assistance (use la ayuda for "help").

*el éxito means "success" (use la salida to say "the exit").

*la carta means "letter" (use una tarjeta to say "a card").

*el caracter refers to someone's personality (use un personaje to talk about people in movies, books, etc.).

* una librería means "a bookstore" (use una biblioteca for "library").

A list of common anglicisms can be found here.

Tags: determiners anglicism masculine feminine singular plural
In this section: Description, Questions, Exercises

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