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The Gender Problem

Some mistakes among foreign speakers of Spanish are caused by the misuse of gender.

Spanish Pinpointed

Some mistakes among foreign speakers of Spanish are caused by the misuse of gender.

As a rule, feminine words end in an ‘a’ and masculine words in an ‘o’, and so do corresponding adjectives. But there are a number of exceptions, a common one being el problema, which is masculine. It’s not unusual to hear foreigners use the intuitive, and wrong, “la problema.”

A number of nouns beginning with the letter ‘a’ use the masculine definite article ‘el‘ or indefinite ‘un‘ to avoid the two a’s clashing. Examples are el agua, el azúcar, un alma. But unlike “el problema,” these words are feminine so use the corresponding endings: agua fría, azúcar blanca, alma perdida.

There are a number of nouns that can be either masculine or feminine. La radio or el radio, la mar or el mar. It’s common for people to use la radio when referring to radio in general as a communications medium—an abbreviated form of la radiodifusión—and el radio when referring to the appliance. Radio is also masculine when it means radius, or radium.

There are also words that mean one thing when masculine, and another when feminine. La cometa means the kite, and el cometa means the comet. El orden means order as in law and order, while la orden means order as in command, or an order for goods (or food at a restaurant). The feminine la frente means forehead, while the masculine el frente means front as in battle front, or the front of a building.

Certain pronouns change their endings to reflect gender. Nosotros – “we” – becomes nosotras when it refers to only women.

When there is a mixture of masculine and feminine elements in a group, the masculine plural is used. This of course doesn’t sit well with the politically-correct. Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox made popular the use of the double definite article. His speeches would be dotted with “las y los mexicanos” to indicate both women and men. Grammatically it’s nonsense, but it pandered well to the wave of modernity and is now frequently used by the speech-making classes. “Amigas y amigos is another popular one, which could have caused Shakespeare’s Mark Antony some technical difficulties fitting in Romans and countrymen.

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