Spanish (español, castellano) is a language originating in North-Central Spain which is spoken throughout Spain, most countries in the Americas, the Philippines and other parts of the world. The formal differences between Peninsular and American Spanish are remarkably few, and someone who has learned the dialect of one area will have no difficulties adapting reasonably easily to formal (non-slang) speech in the other. However, pronunciation does vary a bit.
Spanish grammar is quite similar to English grammar in many respects. There are nouns and verbs, adverbs and adjectives, prepositions and articles. To have a complete sentence, you must have a subject and a verb, and those must agree in person and in number.
Spanish and English differ in two main areas: Sentence structure and noun and adjective gender.
Just as maleness or femaleness is an inherent characteristic of human beings and most animals, so is gender an inherent characteristic of nouns in Spanish. With only a few exceptions, mostly those of occupations such as dentista, the gender of nouns doesn’t change with the context, and a noun’s gender determines the form of many adjectives that describe it.
Although Spanish nouns are classified as either feminine or masculine, remember that there can be feminine nouns that describe things we think of as masculine, and vice versa. For example, un elefante, which is masculine in form, refers to an elephant whether it’s male or female. For some people, it might be easier to think of them as simply two classifications rather than giving them a sexual identity. Spanish has no neuter nouns, and there are a less neuter pronouns, such as lo and ello, that are used in very reduced circumstances, however.)
The basic rule is that masculine nouns go with masculine adjectives and articles, and feminine nouns go with feminine adjectives and articles. (In English, the articles are “a,” “an” and “the.” Also note that in Spanish many adjectives don’t have separate masculine and feminine forms.) And if you use a pronoun to refer to a masculine noun, you use a masculine pronoun; feminine pronouns refer to feminine nouns.
Nouns and adjectives that end in -o (or -os for plural adjectives) generally are masculine, and nouns and adjectives that end in -a (or -as for plural adjectives) generally are feminine, although there are exceptions. For example, cada día means “each day.” Día (“day”) is a masculine noun; cada (“each”) can be either feminine or masculine.
Since you can’t always tell by looking at a noun or knowing its meaning whether it’s masculine or feminine, most dictionaries use notations (f or m) to indicate the gender. And it’s also common in vocabulary lists, to precede words with an el for masculine words and a la for feminine words. (El and la both mean “the”)
Here are examples that show some of the ways a noun’s gender affects the usage of other words. Some of the examples may be more understandable once you study the lessons on adjectives, articles and pronouns.
- the man: el hombre (masculine article, masculine noun)
- the woman: la mujer (feminine article, feminine noun)
- a man: un hombre (masculine article, masculine noun)
- a woman: una mujer (feminine article, feminine noun)
- the men: los hombres (masculine article, masculine noun)
- the women: las mujeres (feminine article, feminine noun)
- the fat man: el hombre gordo (masculine adjective, masculine noun)
- the fat woman: la mujer gorda (feminine adjective, feminine noun)
- some men: unos hombres (masculine determiner, masculine noun)
- some women: unas mujeres (feminine determiner, feminine noun)
- He is thin: Él es delgado. (masculine pronoun, masculine adjective)
- She is thin: Ella es delgada. (feminine pronoun, feminine adjective)
If you have two or more nouns that are being described by a single adjective, and they are of mixed genders, the masculine adjective is used.
Example: El reloj es caro, the watch is expensive (masculine noun and adjective). La bicicleta es cara, the bicycle is expensive (feminine noun and adjective). El reloj y la bicicleta son caros, the watch and the bicycle are expensive (masculine and feminine nouns described by a masculine adjective).