The importance of gender

No, this lesson has nothing to do with women’s rights or “boys will be boys”. It all deals with that element of Spanish which learners find perplexing at the beginning. Every noun under the sun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and it has nothing to do with sexual roles.


No, this lesson has nothing to do with women’s rights or “boys will be boys”.  It all deals with that element of Spanish which learners find perplexing at the beginning.  Every noun under the sun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and it has nothing to do with sexual roles.

It originated from older languages from which Spanish evolved.  So, you have to learn which is which for every noun you learn, but is it important?  Indubitably so!  Let me share a recent personal story with you.  Having broken my leg in September, I was moving slowly and in a fog of aching.  While going at a snail’s pace to enter a taxi, and with that ache fog kicking in, I said to the taxi driver, “Disculpe, es que tengo un pato malo.”  The minute it slipped my mouth I knew I had the gender wrong (blame it on the ache!), and this was confirmed by the driver’s puzzled look.  While trying to say that I had a bad “paw”, casual for foot or leg, I had actually said that I had a bad duck.  I didn’t even try to backtrack with what I said, and the driver is probably still wondering about that strange lady who talks about her misbehaving bird.

So learn from my distressing and confusing mistake, and take the time to learn the correct gender.  Here are a few general rules –

  • If it ends in ión (and there are lots of these!) – it’s always feminine.  If a noun ends in ia, it’s feminine.  La panadería, la existencia
  • Many words which end in ma, pa, ta originated from Greek and despite ending in A, are feminine.  El mapa, el sistema, el cometa (an actual comet, as la cometa is a toy kite), One of these often used is problema, which is always masculine.  No hay problema, used without an el or un is the correct way to say, “no problem”.  But consider, El problema es una falta de dinero.  La falta de dinero es un problema grave. And here I have to throw in my favorite chiste – Problems are always masculine, and solutions are always feminine (see Rule 1, la solución).A word which ends in ma is an exception to this rule – the alarm (as in an alarm system) is La alarma.
  • Words which end in ón are always masculine.  This is often added to a word to make it bigger.  La silla is the chair, but el sillón is a big armchair.
  • One of the trickiest and widely used word is agua.  It is in essence a feminine word and when used plurally or modified it is said as las aguas, agua purificada.  But watch out when it comes to being said with a singular the or one.  It’s correct to say el agua, or un agua.  Why, you ask?  It all has to do with pronunciation.  If the natural emphasis of the word falls on the first syllable where the a occurs, if you said la agua, it would morph into laaaaagua and not be intelligible.  So there’s really a good reason for making this singular form masculine.
  • Just as in my duck/paw story above, many words change completely when you change the gender.  Watch out for the following: El Papa – the Pope, la papa – potato, el papá – the dad (here it’s just the accent that makes it different) / El cero – zero, la cera – wax / La mora – berry , el moro – the Moorish man / El mango – the fruit, la manga – sleeve, as in mangas largas o cortas / El caso – the case, matter, la casa – the house / La manguera – the hose, el manguero – the hoseman or fireman
  • Common exceptions to watch out for: La mano – hand, as in las manos sucias, las manos limpias


Please develop the practice of always learning the gender when you learn a new noun, and avoid embarrassment, grief, and misunderstanding!


Short and sweet

Spanish, when it is casually spoken, is like all languages in that people commonly use many shortcuts.  Words are shortened; words become contractions, and this often affects the pronunciation.

For instance:  Para – in this sense meaning toward. Note how it’s casually said in many Spanish speaking countries –Pa’allá – meaning over there.  Note that this combines into what sounds like one wordpallá, but you are meaning para allá. What happens with the sounds in the above is linguistically called elision.  It’s just a fancy word for words sliding together, such as the two vowels in pallá. A good example of this  elision is mi hija.  Your ear will perceive this as mija, as the h is silent, and the two I’s slide into each other.

Pa’cá – meaning over here.  Para acá.  Acá is a common substitute foraquí. You will hear it often in the command, Ven acá.  Come here.

No tengo dinero pa’ comer.  I don’t have money to eat. No sirve pa’ na’.  This is short for no sirve para nada.  It’s (or he/she is) not good (of any use) for anything        These shortened forms are commonly heard (particularly in Mexico)

Feliz cumple – short for Feliz cumpleaños, Porfa – short for Por favor, La compu – short for la computadora

The key component in learning these shortened forms is to listen, listen, listen.

Yes, you need to actually speak and practice to improve your Spanish,but it’s equally as important to listen carefully and “sing back the song” you’re hearing around you. And just to remember why you’re doing all this and working so hard at your Spanish.Top-10-Laid-Back-Cats-10-510x424

Which comes first?


Which Comes First?

The Chicken or The Egg?

The Adjective or the Noun in Spanish?

One of the earliest rules you learn in Spanish is that adjectives go after the noun.  If you’re more advanced in your study, you know that this one, like many Spanish “rules”, is often broken.  Most of them will come after the noun, but there are also exceptions.  Some different types of adjectives and an indication of where they go…before or after.

Colors – After

Nationality, membership or classification – After      El restaurante mexicano

Adjectives modified by an adverb or phrase – After

La clase muy interesante, la casa llena de muebles

Multiple adjectives – When they’re of similar importance in description – After     La maleta grande y pesada

Adjectives of appreciation – Before, when you want to emphasize.    Es un buen escritor. (meaning he’s really good)

Reinforcing adjectives: Before, adjectives that “go with” the accompanying noun often are placed before the noun. It gives them a more emotional meaning.  El horrible bruto, la alta montaña, la blanca nieve

Adjectives of quantity or possession – Before.  Muchos libros, pocos libros, su casa

Meaning-changing adjectives: Before or After (but the meaning changes) Tengo un viejo amigo.(I have a longtime friend)  Tengo un amigo viejo. (I have a friend who is old (in age)

Some other common ones include: antiguo: el antiguo libro, the old book; la silla antigua, the valuable old chair  grande: un gran hombre, a great man; un hombre grande, a big man  pobre: esa pobre mujer, that poor woman (in the sense of being pitiful); esa mujer pobre, that woman who is poor  solo: un solo hombre, only one man; un hombre solo, a lonely man  triste: un triste viaje, a terrible one; un viaje triste, a sad one  único: la única estudiante, the only student; una estudiante única, a unique student

Listen up!


A frequent comment is about difficulty in Spanish listening comprehension.  These are a few tips which you may find helpful.

Stop talking and start listening…a lot!  It’s really helpful to find something to listen to, spoken at normal speed, which you can pause and repeat.  The telenovelas offered on Netflix, Hulu and other services are terrific for this.  If you want to see the acting career of the first lady of Mexico, watch one called Destilando Amor.  You’ll also learn something about the production of Mexico’s national drink.  Sometimes you can listen to the same sentence 10 times before the light dawns, and then it will be completely clear.  Practice writing in your head what you are hearing.  If you can visualize the writing of the sounds, you can often see the logic of those vowels sliding together.

Learn to listen in what I call clumps.  You don’t have to hear every little word to understand a phrase.  Just listen for the key words and let your mind slide over the little ones.  There’s really no time to have every syllable register in the speed of normal conversation.  If you’ve ever filled in words you assume are a part of an English conversation in a noisy bar, you’ll know what I mean.  Educate your mind to listen for the main concepts, not the details.

When you’re listening to Spanish, put on your “Spanish hat” and don’t allow your mind to think or interpret in English.  I was reminded of this recently when some intermediate speakers were following a dinner conversation.  The key word in the Spanish situation was caos.  In writing it’s clear that this word is chaos in English.  But the intermediates were hearing the sound of CA – OS and thinking that the conversation was about bovine animals or cows.  It was amusing, and a good example of letting English interfere, instead of visualizing a word pronounced with your “Spanish hat”.  Laughter reigned at the table when we all figured out what had happened.

It’s the little things (prepositions 101)

When you’re polishing your Spanish and refining it, you need to pay special attention to the little things such as prepositions which follow certain verbs.  Here are examples of some of the most high frequency ones.  When you are trying to imprint something in your linguistic brain, read the example given here.  Then make up your own sentence using the same verb, but this time stating something which you frequently say.  Get those patterns stuck in your head, but make them your own patterns!

Make a game of seeing how often you can speak them or think them in a day.  When you’re learning a language you are laying tracks in your brain on which your Spanish cars can run, but you must keep those tracks well oiled by frequent repetitions.

  • asistir a = to attend    No quiero asistir a la reunión porque estoy muy cansada, y mi novio va a asistir a una fiesta en la casa de Guillermo.
  • tratar de = to try in the sense of to make an effort (probar – to try out, on)  Voy a tratar de hacerlo bien.  Ellos van a tratar de no gastar mucho dinero en Acapulco.  Mi hijo está tratando de leer.
  • empezar (ie) a = to start   In a phrase such as ¿A qué hora empieza la fiesta?   The beginning A is the at in at what time, but when you have something following this verb, note:  Mi amiga empezó a estudiar el español la semana pasada.
  • olvidarse de = to forget   Siempre me olvido de la cantidad (how much) que necesito.
  • acordarse (ue) de = to remember  Me acuerdo de la primera vez que fui a México.  ¿Te acuerdas de la primera vez?
  • salir de = to leave (from)   ¿A qué hora sale la profesora de la escuela?
  • saber de = to know about    No sé nada de la historia de Costa Rica, pero sé mucho del café.
  • entrar a = to enter   No quiero entrar a la tienda sin mi bolsa.
  • hablar de = to talk about    ¿De qué habla Tita? ¿ Habla del novio de Cristina o del novio de Alma?
  • enamorarse de = to fall in love with    Quiero enamorarme de un príncipe muy pronto.  Ella se enamoró de un español de San Sebastián.
  • soñar con = to dream about      Anoche soñé contigo.  ¿Soñaste conmigo?
  • alegrarse de = to be happy about   Me alegro mucho de la invitación a la boda.

Use of the word Por



Para and por cannot simply be thought of as the English “for”, as they are both very rich in meaning.  To use them successfully you must think beyond the surface words.  Para is the easier, more limited one.  Think of it as handing something to someone, as destination of an object.  Este regalo es para ti.

Another use is for the purpose of – Este ejercicio es para aumentar (increase) el vocabulario.   In a very broad sense you can think of por as being more inward and para with an arrow pointing outward.  A really frequent thing to say is Gracias por todo.  In this sense, it means in exchange for.  (Using para here is never correct, but it’s a common mistake we see frequently here in the office when people write us.)

Other uses with this exchange idea are in buying things.  ¿Cuánto por el libro?  Pagué 10 dólares por el regalo. Think of por as having these extended meanings:             By (times), per:  Dos por cuatro son ocho.  Voy a la clase dos veces por semana.  Prefiero viajar por tren.  Necesito hablar por teléfono con mi amigo.  El libro fue escrito por Carlos Fuentes.              Through (along), throughout, during   Caminamos por el parque.  Voy a hacerlo por la mañana (an unspecified time).

For the sake of, in favor of, on behalf of     Lo hice por el amor.  Voté por el mejor candidato.

Contrast the following: Compré el regalo para ti.  (It’s going outward to you as a recipient.)  Compré el regalo por ti.  (I bought it on your behalf or for your sake.)

Trabajo para la compania, y trabajo por mi familia.  I work for the company, and I work for the sake of my family.

For a period of time – Leí el libro por dos horas anoche.  But here be careful.  Para is used for a time deadline or specific time in the future.  Necesito el taxi para el lunes.  Te amo para siempre.

There are many idioms with por:  por cierto – certainly, por primera vez  – for the first time, por todas partes – everywhere, por fin – at last, por eso – therefore, por lo general – generally, as a rule, por dentro – inside, palabra por palabra – word for word, por supuesto – of course, por casualidad – by chance, por mi parte – as for me, por lo menos – at least, por allí– around there, that way, por adelantado – in advance

And don’t forget to distinguish between Por qué, meaning why and Para qué, meaning for what purpose.

Don’t get so tense about tenses!

Quite often I hear students express that their main problem in Spanish is choosing the right tense.  Verbs are definitely more complicated than in English, but there are some nuances which make things easier.  I have been struck while living in Mexico how often the simple present tense is used, even for things that haven’t happened yet. For instance, in English, quite often we say (using a future tense), I’m going to call you later or I’ll call you tomorrow.  Because this future is not so far off, in Spanish it would be commonly expressed as Te llamo más tarde (o mañana).  Simple present tense!

Other examples which in English are future, but in Spanish in the present, with either tú or usted forms: Will you let me know?  ¿Me avisa(s)? Will you wait for me?  ¿Me espera(s)? Will you sign for me?  ¿Me regala su firma, por favor?  (This is one of my favorite, as you’re being asked literally to give your signature as a gift, or a regalo.  Very polite!)  Another note here, if they ask for your firma electrónica, it’s your card PIN number required.  Will you call me tomorrow?  ¿Me llama(s) mañana? I am going to come by your house Monday.  Paso por tu casa el lunes.  

Sometimes in English we use will, not as the future, but to make a request.  Will you split a salad with me?  In Spanish, just use the present tense of querer (ie).  ¿Quiere(s) compartir una ensalada?  Will you do me a big favor?  ¿Quiere(s) hacerme un favorzote? 

But then there’s the future tense in Spanish used for something we commonly say in English in the present tense.  How many times do you start a sentence with “I wonder”.  There’s no real equivalent of this in Spanish (although me pregunto is sometimes used as in the meaning I ask myself), but the future tense comes to the rescue.  When saying to a driver or a clerk, I wonder if you have change.  In Spanish even simpler, ¿Tendrá cambio?  I wonder what time it is.  ¿Qué hora será?  I wonder if he’s coming or not.  ¿Vendrá o no? 


Use these little gifts of Spanish tenses to make your life less tense!