How can we tell the gender of a Spanish noun? Let’s look at the most general rule: words that end in “a” are feminine, while those that end in “o” are masculine. Pretty easy, huh? The unfortunate thing is that it’s not always true, as our friend Arume proves when she correctly says “el tema” (the topic) and not “la tema,” which would be incorrect.
Y bueno ahí surge ya el tema de tengo novio, no tengo novio.
And well, that's when the topic of whether you have a boyfriend or not comes up.
Caption 75, Arume - La Vida Escolar Play Caption
BANNER PLACEHOLDER In the first installment of our series on Andalusian farmers, “Del Campo a la Mesa,” the eldest picker illustrates another exception when he says, correctly, “las manos” (the hands):
And not only exceptions, but even some rules can complicate things. Do you know why the Mexican band Café Tacuba’s singer says “el agua,” using the masculine “el” (the) instead of the feminine “la” (the)?
It’s not because agua is a masculine noun. It’s because of a rule in Spanish that says that any feminine noun that begins with a stressed "a" uses the masculine articles (el, un) in the singular forms for ease of pronunciation (similar to the way "a" turns to "an" in English).
This rule does not apply to the plural forms:
Ellos vinieron aquí, a las aguas de la Charca Larga, y había muchos seres extraños.
They came here, to the waters of Long Pond, and there were many strange beings.
Captions 42-43, Salvando el planeta Palabra - Llegada - Part 3 Play Caption
Nor if the "a" sound is unstressed:
La aceituna que yo he recogido está aquí.
The olive[s] that I have harvested [are] here.
Caption 19, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 1 Play Caption
BANNER PLACEHOLDER To finish, let’s just say that native Spanish speakers learn the gender of words by hearing and using them constantly in real situations, not by memorizing exceptions or wondering whether the word tristeza (loneliness) feels more like a feminine or masculine thing. The more we immerse ourselves in authentic Spanish, the more we as learners can begin to “intuitively” know the gender of nouns that we frequently encounter, including those that don’t follow the common pattern.