El, La, “a”, “o”: Easy as Pie? or Fraught with Confusion for Gringos? – The Article

La,   El,   “a”   or  “o“…

Cruising the web this morning exposed yet another gringo saying:
“O” endings on words are masculine    😮 ”

This “gem” of wisdom came from a well experienced gringo who posts very regularly, claims over 20 years on & off in Mexico, and a guy who spins good “insider” yarns about hanging out with many of Merida’s elite, writing advice rich with personal ideas of Mexican/Yucatecan culture.

This little “gem” is particularly seductive, because it is so simple.
Easy to understand, easy to remember, and so easy to apply.

Have any readers considered that overly-simple gringo-Spanish rules might have caused your workers or store clerk to briefly look askance at you, and gotten you unexpected and sometimes frustrating results?
. . .

Unfortunately, expat assumptions that “o” endings means masculine & that “a” endings means feminine, is a major cause of eye-rolling by knowledgeable Spanish speakers. Casual gringo usages of “el” and “la” also raise myriads of misunderstandings between good-intentioned gringos and their Spanish/Mexican listeners.

Briefly consider how “a” and “o” and “á” endings right can get gringos into no end of problems:
Raya / Rayo (One is a stripe or scratch or Manta Ray, while the other is lightning)
La papa / El Papa (potato v. the Pope)
Papa / Papá  (potato v. Dad)
El cometa / La cometa (comet v. kite)
Mama / Mamá (breast v. mother)
La cólera / El cólera (anger v. cholera disease)
La coma / El Coma (comma v. coma)
La corte / El corte (court v. cut)
La parte / El parte (part/portion v. report/message)

Just think of how you might have described that:
“My breast went into a comma when the kite hit.

Ready to consider the ever popular: derecha / derecho usages?

La derecha / El derecho are: Right hand side or political Right v. human rights)
~ but only as nouns ~

El lado derecho / La linea derecha are: The right hand side v. a straight line)
~ as adjectives ~

~ As an adverb: derecho = straight ahead ~

So “straight ahead” and “in a straight line” have opposite genders: (derecho – adverb vs. derecha – adjective).

(And does this partly explain why you thought the Mexican giving you directions couldn’t seem to keep their “go right” and “go straight ahead” instructions … straight?)

Think you have derecho/derecha straightend out? Consider that “derecho” used as “el palo derecho“, it means vertical or upright pole.


Again, if this all seems like some useless, esoteric, exercise in vocabulary & grammar: Think back to times when you may have used overly-simple gringo-Spanish rules advocated by some “expert” gringos.

~ ~ Does that explain why workers or store clerks have looked at you funny, and then given you some unexpected or frustrating results? ~ ~

It might be worth reading a bit further?

Sidelight: Why does this happen to so many expats?

Unfortunately, English does not have gender-specific articles, so while listening to Spanish, typical Americans (and English-Only Speaking Canadians) pay little attention to the  “El“s &  “La“s,  “a“s  & “o“s,  while Spanish, French, Italian, and German speakers are very attuned to these issues.

Now that we’ve realized that
“O” endings on words are masculine 😮 ”

really is not worth remembering, due to all the trouble it causes in everyday situations, let’s try to make some sense out a sometimes bewildering subject.

Consider “la foto“.
Is this like “la mano” – the hand – where it is not evident why the “la” is paired with “o” in mano? Fortunately, “la foto” can make sense as feminine, because it’s actually short for la fotografía.

Want to peek inside a whole other rabbit hole? (Careful, Alice…)
Consider words that end in “a” as a part of the -ista ending? (equivalent to the English “-ist.”) These fortunately are pretty straightforward: Dentista can be either masculine or feminine depending on whether the dentist referred to is a man or woman.   El Dentista is a male dentist, and La dentista is a woman.    As happens with all languages, remember the exceptions:  Historically male-dominated professions?: Use la piloto for a female pilot.

Venturing out onto the branch a little further, there are also Spanish words with other endings that are treated the same way: Modelo can be either masculine (el) or feminine (la) when referring to a human model, but it is strictly masculine in other uses (such as when referring to a model airplane).

Now consider words whose meanings vary depending on the gender: La radio means the radio, while el radio can mean either radius or radium.    Further, “la radio” is sometimes used to refer to the communications medium and el radio for an individual radio set.   In reality, la radio is short for la radiodifusión.

Masculine/feminine conventions can also be regionally specific:  “La radio” is feminine in Spain, while it is “El Radio” in Mexico.

As some readers may have already found, it can be tiresome to go through detailed explanations for each Spanish word, identifying the vagaries of “el“, “la“, “o“, and “a“, so, it’s now time to offer readers a simple list of common exceptions to the “masculine o & feminine a” rule:

el agua — water
el aroma — aroma
el Canadá — Canada
el clima — climate
el cólera — cholera (note la cólera = anger)
el cometa — comet (note la cometa = kite or papagayo)
la cometa — kite
el cura — priest (note la cura = cure)
el día — day
el diagrama — diagram
el dilema — dilemma
el diploma — diploma
la disco — disco (short for la discoteca)
la dote — talent
el drama — drama
el enema — enema
el enigma — enigma
el esquema — outline, diagram
la foto — photo (short for la fotografía)

el gorila — gorilla

el guardia — policeman or male guard (note la guardia = vigilance)
el guía — male guide (note la guía = guidebook or female guide)
el idioma — language
el idiota — male idiot (note la idiota = female idiot)
el indígena — indigenous male (note la indígena = indigenous female)

la lista — a list or stripe or menu
listo — Adjective! : clever (smart)
listo? / lista! – Adverbs! : ready? (Are your ready?) / ready! (I am ready.)

la libido — libido
la mano — hand
el mediodiá — midday
la modelo — female model (note el modelo = male model)
el morfema — morpheme (as a part of morphology)
la moto — motorcycle (short for la motocicleta)
el panorama — panorama, outlook
el papa — the pope (note la papa = potato)
el pijama — pijamas
el planeta — planet
el poema — poem
el policía — policeman (note la policía = police force or policewoman)
el planeta — planet
el problema — problem
el programa — program
el quechua — Quechua language
la radio — radio ( el radio = radius or radium ~ also, usage of the feminine form depends on the region ~ see above)

la rata / el rato / el ratón — rat / a while* / mouse
*~ ~ “Otro rato!”  = “So long! , see you soon! ” ~ ~

el reuma, el reúma — rheumatism
la reo — female criminal (note el reo = male criminal)
el síntoma — symptom, sign
el sistema — system
el sofá — sofa
la soprano — female soprano (note el soprano = male soprano)
el tanga — G-string
el telegrama — telegram
el tema — theme, subject
el teorema — theorem
la testigo — female witness (note el testigo = male witness)
el tranvía — tram or streetcar
el yoga — hand

This list only includes a few examples of feminine words like “el agua” beginning with a stressed a- or ha- and are preceded by el in the singular form. Other feminine examples include: el águila (eagle), el ama (woman of the house) and el alma (soul).   Also note that the normal rules are followed in their plural form: las aguas, las águilas, las amas and las almas.

This list also does not contain the words that refer to people’s jobs,  (typically ending in -ista or -eta),  since they follow the straightforward example of “la dentista” for women dentists and “el dentista” for male dentists listed above.      Also note that most of these job-titles have English cognates, like: el/la atleta (athlete), el/la artista (artist), el/la astronauta (astronaut), el/la dentista (dentist), el/la comentarista (commentator), el/la izquierdista (leftist or left-winger), el/la oficinista (office worker), el/la poeta (poet), el/la profeta (prophet), and el/la turista (tourist).

Got room for another rule?
Nouns imported from other languages are generally masculine, unless there’s a reason for making them feminine. Consider la / el Internet:   The feminine form (“La Internet“) is often used, because the computer networks (red) are feminine (“la red“).

Think you’ve got “it” all down now?

What about nouns that do not end with “a” or “o” ?

el acné — acne
el anatema — anathema
el arte — art — (masculine is used when arte is singular, but the feminine is often used in the plural, as in artes bellas ~ fine arts ~).
el autoclave — sterilizer
el azúcar — sugar — (azúcar is masculine when standing alone, but switches when used with feminine adjectives, as in la azúcar blanca (white sugar).
la babel — bedlam
el calor — heat
la/el chinche — small insect
el cochambre — dirt
el color — color
el cutis — complexion
la dote – dowry
los herpes — herpes
el interrogante — question
el/la lente, los/las lentes — lens, glasses
la/el linde — boundary
el mar — sea — (usually masculine, but becomes feminine in weather and nautical usages, like en alta mar – on the high seas and is often feminine in poetic usages).
el/la mimbre — willow
la/el pelambre — thick hair
el/la prez — esteem, honor
la/el pringue — grease
el/la sartén — frying pan — masculine in Spain, feminine in much of Latin America.
la testuz — forehead of an animal
la tilde — tilde, accent mark
el tizne — soot, stain
el tortícolis — stiff neck
la treponema **— type of bacteria
el trípode — tripod

**Note: We threw in la treponema as an example of how many words limited to medical uses, which are listed as feminine in dictionaries, but are instead usually masculine in actual usages.

Confident that you have a handle on El’s La’s and endings?
… or does your head hurt too much to continue?

For the brave of heart – and the really stubborn folks out there, on we go to double gender nouns:
You actually already dealt with an entire class of double gender nouns above, when thinking about nouns ending in “-ista”, like El Dentista and La Dentista, where the gender changes depending on the usage, but there’s a whole other world of Spanish nouns whose meanings change dramatically when you change from El or La ~ yet the spelling of the word is the same for both masculine and feminine usages, like “La papa” & “El papa” and “Radio” listed above.  Here’s a partial list of double gender nouns:

El batería = male drummer   &   La batería = battery or female drummer
El bestia = a brute   &   La bestia = a beast or an uncouth woman
El busca = pager (personal electronic device)   &   La busca = a search
El cabeza = head of an organization   &   La cabeza = head
El capital = financial capital   &   La capital = capital city or capital letter
El caza = fighter airplane  &   La caza = the hunt
El cólera = cholera   &   La cólera = anger
El coma = coma   &   La coma = comma

El cometa = comet   &   La cometa = kite

El consonante = rhyme   &   La consonante = consonant
El corriente = current month & La corriente = flow / current of water or electricity
El corte = cut or blade   &   La corte = court (law)
El cura = Catholic priest   &   La cura = cure
El delta = delta (of a river)   &   La delta = delta (Greek letter)
El defensa = soccer / football defender   &   La defensa = defense
El doblez = fold or crease   &   La doblez = double dealing
El editorial = newspaper editorial   &   La editorial = publishing business
El escolta = escort of an individual   &   La escolta = escort of a group
El espada = Matador or swordsman   &   La espada = sword
El escucha = male sentry or guard   &   La eschucha = female sentry (guard) or the act of listening

El facha = “Facist!” (as an insult)   &  
La facha = appearance (how someone looks)

El final = end   &   La final = championship game in a tournament
El frente = front   &   La frente = forehead
El guardia = policeman   &   La guardia = protection, custody, guard, police force, or policewoman
El guía = male guide   &   La guía = guidebook or female guide
El hincha = sports fan or supporter & La Hincha = grudge or ill will
El mañana = future   &   La mañana = morning
El margen = margin   &   La margen = river bank
El moral = blackberry bush   &   La moral = morale (attitude) or morality
El orden = order (opposite of chaos)   &   La orden = religious order

El ordenanza = order (opposite of chaos)   &   La ordenaza = orderly

El panda = panda bear & La panda = gang
El papa = pope   &   La Papa = potato
El pareja = male parter & La pareja = a couple of people, females
El parte = document   &   La parte = portion
El pendiente = earring   &   La pendiente = slope
El pez = fish   &   La pez = tar or pitch
El policía = policeman   &   La policía = police force or policewoman
El radio = radius or radium   &   La radio = radio
El tema = subject   &   La tema = obsession
El terminal = electrical terminal   &   La terminal = shipping terminal

El trompeta = male trumpeter   &   La trompeta = trumpet or  female trumpeter

El vista = male customs officer   &   La vista = view or female customs officer
El vocal = male committee member   &   La vocal = a vowel or (outspoken?) female committee member

Well, my head really hurts now from all the gyrations, so, it’s time to change gears and wrap things up: Yucalandia gratefully acknowledges much help from El Pequeño (1,700 page) LAROUSSE Ilustrado Diccionario (1979), E-Spanish (http://www.e-spanyol.hu/en/grammar/gender.php) and About.com (http://spanish.about.com/cs/grammar/a/genderreversal.htm & http://spanish.about.com/od/nouns/a/double_gendered.htm), http://quizlet.com/2554571/same-noun-but-different-meaning-according-to-the-gender-flash-cards/ and  Websters New Spanish-English Dictionary ISBN 1-59027-002-9 as solid references for this article.

* * * *
If you liked this article, consider also checking out our article on false cognates at: Spanish – English False Cognates
* * * *
Feel free to copy while giving proper attribution: YucaLandia/Surviving Yucatan.
Steven M. Fry

Read-on MacDuff . . .

&   La

<strong><em>El papa</em> </strong>= pope   &amp;   <strong><em>La </em><em>Papa</em></strong> = potato

5 Responses to El, La, “a”, “o”: Easy as Pie? or Fraught with Confusion for Gringos? – The Article

  1. Pingback: El, La, “a”, “o” … Easy as Pie? or Fraught with Confusion for Gringos? | Surviving Yucatan

  2. Jody says:

    The problem is “learning by the rules”. Rules come in very handy at the later levels of language acquisition, when what a person needs is a bit of polishing of one’s structures or needs to edit one’s writing. However, at the beginning and intermediate phases of language acquisition, they get in the way more than provide a way.

    Learning those sticky phrases like “el papa” as a phrase: “El papa visitó”, within an interesting context or story (aural/written and true or false): El papa visitó a mi prima que trabaja en La Tropicana en La Habana, with many, many repetitions of “el papa”, and perhaps, some good visuals to go along with that story—helps the brain form the structure “el papa” without resorting to the need to apply a rule–which takes the brain on a side trip to grammar hell.

    The grammar of a language is a beautiful subject to study, but it is not language acquisition. One can acquire the structure/grammar of a language without ever learning conscious rules. There is no physical way that any person could ever learn ALL the grammar of a language and, much less, be able to apply it properly in every instance. The myth of grammar application, as a means of language acquisition, still lurks among us as a truth. What a waste of time and energy!

    Thank you for such a comprehensive list of these sticky words.. Yes, it is absolutely true that speakers of a language without noun gender (English) will take longer to learn all of these gender-bound nouns in Spanish. What interesting fun there is to be had in the process!

  3. Alinde says:

    Thanks, Jody, for that take on learning the language in stages–I am also finding that “learning by the rules” can be counter-productive for beginning and intermediate-level learners. And I’ll add–my own tutor often “poo-poos” the text-book approaches, for the same reason.

    This reminds me of the very old phrase, “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” Remember that one? Well, “ain’t” is now in many dictionaries, though with a note, such as “informal.”

    I’ve really enjoyed using songs for learning. I’m sure that any Spanish speaker using English songs would probably learn “ain’t” along the way.

    So you’re right–focus first on communication, and then on writing correctly, proper grammar and such.

    And thank you Steven Fry for so much work. For the moment, I’d like to suggest the addition of “listo/lista.” Ready? CLEVER? or a List? I’ve decided not to use it as an adjective for a long while, after sensing that some gentle fun was had at my improper usage.

    • yucalandia says:

      The listo / lista pair is a bit like the derecho / derecha pair, since listo / lista exist in multiple usages: as a noun (lista), an adjective (listo – clever), and then each as adverbs: Ready? (Listo?) I’m ready. (Lista!)

      It’s a great everyday example of how casual (imprecise) gringo usage can cause confusion, due to not paying attention to the “o” and “a” endings – as practiced by the poster who almost knows many things about Yucatán (Casi-Yucateco) who authored the quote above that “masculine words end in “o”.

      Twists and turns can be fun!

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