This month I promised we’d go on to something new. We’re going to spend a bit of time looking at nouns, followed later on by adjectives, before we return to the construction of complete sentences using verbs.

Before we do that though, I always think it’s a good idea to summarise where we’re up to, so here are the things we have covered in the first seven lessons of this series:

First of all we have learnt some thirty verbs in their infinitive, or basic form. That is the form that we translate as “to ….” and which in Spanish ends in either –ar, -er or –ir.

Then we have seen that certain verb forms related to “I” can go in front of these to make a basic sentence structure. Quiero (I want); Puedo (I can); Necesito (I need); Voy a (I’m going to); Me gusta (I like); Prefiero (I prefer) and Tengo que (I have to).

We have also looked at three examples where changing these forms slightly gives us a “you” sentence; Vas a (you are going to); Quieres (you want); Tienes que (you have to).

In addition we have learnt the link words; Pero (but) and Para (in order to), which allow us to extend our sentences to make them more complete and meaningful.

Now – Nouns.
The word ‘noun’ simply means the name of something, so it refers to people and things like ‘man’ and ‘table’ and also ideas and feelings like ‘democracy’ and ‘happiness’. We also have what we call Proper Nouns which are specific names like ‘Mary’ or ‘England’. Proper Nouns always start with a capital letter in English and Spanish; María or Inglaterra.

The way the English language is structured, it is not important at all whether a noun refers to a male or a female. We simply have different words (man, woman, stallion, mare etc.) whilst everything else is simply a neutral object (table, car, chair, paper). In Spanish however, every noun is considered to be either masculine or feminine, so just as hombre (man) and mujer (woman) are masculine and feminine, so words for objects are too; mesa (table – feminine); coche (car – masculine); silla (chair – feminine); papel (paper – masculine).

It is very important for us to realise that the concept of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ does not relate to the thing itself, but to the word. In other words we shouldn’t be thinking about why a table is considered feminine and a car is considered masculine, we simply need to accept that the word mesa is a feminine word and coche is a masculine word. To illustrate this point, here are some examples:
vestido (dress – masculine)
camisa (shirt – feminine)
bolsa (bag – feminine)
bolso (handbag – masculine)

Even more interesting:
persona (person – feminine)
víctima (victim – feminine)

In all these examples and many more, the gender of the word bears no relation to the gender identification of the object or person.

Two questions need answering before we continue talking about this matter next month. Firstly, how do we know when a word is masculine or feminine and secondly, why is it important?

In answer to the first question, is that it is very common for masculine words to end in the letter “o” and feminine words to end in the letter “a”, although this is not always the case. There are some exceptions that are the other way round and also many words that end in different letters. However, it is quite a good indicator to start with.

Then there are certain characteristic endings. Two of the most common examples are words that end in “–dad” and “–ción” which are always feminine.

Now the second question – Why is it important?
To be honest, at the early stages of language learning, when you only know a few words and are getting simple messages across to people (like how many beers you want), then it really doesn’t matter very much at all. However, as you progress with the language you start to discover that this masculine/feminine divide runs right through the language and affects a lot of other words in a sentence. To learn to speak correct Spanish we have to get to grips with the idea.

I’ll have to give you some homework, although this month it’s nothing too specific – just start noticing nouns that you come across and working out whether they are masculine or feminine. In dictionaries this is indicated by (m) and (f). Write down as many of the words that you might use every day.

Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are now available as e-books at where you can also obtain Jane’s brand new “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.