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Gender of Portuguese Words

Like other Romance languages, Portuguese nouns are gender-marked being either masculine or feminine.

But the gender dimension in Portuguese extends well beyond nouns. For instance, word classes such as adjectives, pronouns, and articles will inflect to conform to the gender of the noun they refer to.

These “gender ramifications” make it harder for language learners not used to it. For instance, when you mistake the gender of a given noun, you’ll probably choose the wrong form of the other gender-conforming words around it. 

The following example clearly illustrates that. The words marked in red are nouns (either masculine or feminine). The words in blue, on the other hand, are those words conforming to the gender of the nouns they refer to. Note how swapping genders – from sentences 1 to 2 – affects the whole sentence:

(1) O meu primo comprou o seu primeiro carro.
My cousin bought his first car.
(2) A minha prima comprou a sua primeira mota
My cousin bought her first motorcycle.

As you see, keeping everything gender-aligned can be cumbersome for them just starting off learning Portuguese (and let’s not dismiss the fact that, to a great extent, you’ll have to learn nouns’ gender by heart). In that way, gender is a stumbling block that can make you feel insecure and slow you down when you speak in your target language. 

The purpose of this post is to bring you some ease concerning this gender imbroglio. We’ll be looking at different patterns that will help you know if a noun is either masculine or feminine. In addition, we’ll be looking at masculine-to-feminine conversion patterns for nouns and adjectives that will make your life much easier.

Let’s get started. 

! If you are a complete beginner, I’d recommend that you read the following grammar-introductory article before you dive into the specifics of gender: Dabbling in Portuguese grammar – first impressions for beginners.

Btw, gender and number go hand in hand when it comes to word declension. Here’s a complementary read for you: Forming the Plural in Portuguese: Singular-to-Plural Conversion Patterns You Need to Care About.

Nouns

Either masculine or feminine

In general, Portuguese nouns are either masculine or feminine. So, how do you know which is which? 

Portuguese native speakers like me know it by heart, of course. Easy. But for you learning Portuguese as a second language, learning the nouns’ gender can be a long and laborious process. Luckily, there are a few spelling patterns that will make your life easier. Let’s look at some of them. 

Tips! When learning new words, always make sure that you learn their genders – learn them together with their respective definite articles.

The -o/-a pattern

The  –o/-a pattern pervades much of the Portuguese language. Hence, there is an abundance of masculine and feminine nouns ending in -o and -a respectively. This pattern alone will help you to guess the gender of a large number of words correctly. A few examples:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o vaso (pot)a mesa (table)
o livro (book)a torneira (tap)
o carro (car)a janela (window)
o copo (glass)a casa (house)
o garfo (fork)a persiana (blind)
o correio (post)a faca (knife)
o prédio (building)a cama (bed)
. . .

While the -o/-a pattern may apply to a large number of words, you ought to be on your guard as there are exceptions. The masculine word o dia (day) and the feminine word a tribo (tribe) are examples of that.

Importantly, if you want to be 100% sure about the nouns’ gender, look at those little words preceding them (o, a, esta, este, etc.) – those words are called determiners and indicate the gender of the nouns they refer to (we’ll be talking about determiners further down).

Nouns ending in -grama, –ema, and –oma

Actually, there are plenty of masculine nouns ending in -a. However, most of these nouns give away their gender through their spelling. Accordingly, nouns ending in -grama, -ema and -oma are masculine. A few examples:

MASCULINE
o programa (program)
o telegrama (telegram)
o cinema (cinema)
o sistema (system)
o idioma (idiom)
o axioma (axiom)
. . . 

So far, we’ve taken up nouns ending with either -o or -a. Yet, there’s an abundance of nouns ending either with other vowels or with consonants.  Fortunately, in these cases, there are also patterns that help us get the gender right. Let’s look at some of them. 

Nouns ending in -l, -r, or -z

Most nouns ending in -l, -r, and -z are masculine:

MASCULINE
o papel (paper)
o anel (ring)
o colar (collar)
o lugar (place)
o juíz (judge)
o arroz (rice)
. . . 

Nouns ending in -ão

Nouns ending in -ão referring to concrete things are often masculine:

MASCULINE
o pão (bread)
o limão (lemon)
o coração (heart)
o pião (spinning-top)
. . . 

Let’s now look at patterns pointing at feminine nouns.

Nouns ending in –ção ,-são, or –ssão

Often, words ending in either -ção, -são, or -ssão refer to abstract concepts and are feminine:

Feminine
a exceção (exception)
a resignação (resignation)
a dimensão (dimension)
a divisão (division)
a compressão (compression)
a missão (mission)
. . . 

Did you notice that all the examples above have English cognates? You see, you probably know more Portuguese words than you thought you did. Read the following article to unleash that vocab-reservoir you’ve been sitting on all along: English-Portuguese Cognates – The Words You Already Know (Without Knowing It).

Nouns ending in -gem

Nouns ending in –gem are, for the most part, feminine:

FEMININE
a coragem (courage)
a origem (origin)
a imagem (image)
a vantagem (advantage)
a paisagem (landscape)
a viagem (travel)
. . . 

Nouns ending in -dade

The same goes for words ending with –dade, that is, they normally are feminine:

FEMININE
a cidade (city)
a necessidade (necessity)
a integridade (integrity)
a qualidade (quality)
a possibilidade (possibility)
a mobilidade (mobility)
. . . 

Two genders, two forms (conversion patterns)

Unlike the nouns we’ve covered so far, these ones have two forms, one masculine, and one feminine. Typically, these nouns refer to humans denoting things like kinship, profession, and nationality, as well as to animal species. 

Since all nouns in this category have both a feminine and masculine form, we will now be focusing on masculine-to-feminine conversion patterns.  

The good old -o/-a pattern

As mentioned before, the -o/-a pattern permeates much of the language and many of the words that have both masculine and feminine forms conform to it. 

Accordingly, masculine words ending in –o find their feminine form by having -o replaced with -a:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o tio (uncle)a tia (aunt)
o primo (cousin, he)a prima (cousin, she)
o médico (doctor, he)a médica (doctor, she)
o arquiteto (architect, he)a arquiteta (architect, she)
o gato (male cat)a gata (female cat)
o sueco (Swedish man)a sueca (Swedish woman)
. . .

Masculine nouns ending in –or

In principle, going from masculine nouns ending in –or, we form the feminine by adding an –a to it. Often, you’ll find names of professions, jobs, trades, or crafts fitting this category:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o pintor (male painter)a pintora (female painter)
o cantor (male singer)a cantora (female singer)
o professor (male teacher)a professora (female teacher)
o mentor (male mentor)a mentora (female mentor)
. . .

A few words ending in -or, however, form their feminine with -triz:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o ator (actor)a atriz (actress)
o embaixador (male ambassador)a embaixatriz (female ambassador)
o emperador (emperor)a emperatriz (empress)
. . . 

Masculine nouns ending in -ês

A similar conversion rule applies to masculine nouns ending in -ês, that is, we form the feminine by adding an -a. The words in this group often correspond to nationalities:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o francês (French man)a francesa (French woman)
o japonês (Japanese man)a japonesa (Japanese woman)
o inglês (English man)a inglesa (English woman)
o dinamarquês (male customer)a dinamarquesa (female customer)
. . .

By the way, the name of any language always matches the masculine form of the respective nationality. So, the national languages corresponding to the above nationalities are called Francês, Japonês, Inglês, and Dinamarquês respectively.  

Masculine nouns ending in –ão

Often, nouns ending in -ão form their feminine by dropping that final –o:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o ancião (old man)a anciã (old woman)
o alemão (German man)a alemã (German woman)
o irmão (brother)a irmã (sister)
o aldeão (villager man)a aldeã (villager woman)
. . .

Also possible are the feminine forms -oa and -ona

MASCULINEFEMININE
o melão (melon)a meloa (small melon)
o leão (lion)a leoa (lioness)
o chorão (crybaby, he)a chorona (crybaby, she)
solteirão (single man)solteirona (single woman)
. . .

Noble titles ending in -e 

Often, the masculine form of noble titles ends with -e, whereas their corresponding feminine forms end with either -essa or -esa

MASCULINEFEMININE
o conde (count)a condessa (countess)
o duque (duke)a duquesa (duchess)
o príncipe (prince)a princesa (princess)
o abade (abbot)a abadessa (abbess)
. . .

Anomalous cases

Some commonly used words won’t conform to any clear masculine-to-feminine conversion pattern. A few examples:

MASCULINEFEMININE
o homem (man)a mulher (woman)
o pai (father)a mãe (mother)
o rapaz (boy)a rapariga (girl)
o rei (king)a rainha (queen)
o frade (friar)a freira (nun)
. . .

Two genders, one form (unisex) 

Nouns ending with either -e or -a

There is an abundance of professions and occupation-related words ending with either the –e or –a vowels. Often, these words are unisex, that is, they look the same irrespective of gender. 

Consequently, it is only the articles (or other determiners) in front of those nouns that point out the gender. A few examples:

MASCULINE/FEMININE
o/a gerente (male manager)
o/a assistente (male assistant)
o/a dentista (male dentist)
o/a artista (male artist)
. . .

Adjectives

Adjectives always conform to gender and follow some of the masculine-to-feminine conversion patterns that we’ve gone through above. 

Observe the following few examples:

MASCULINEFEMININE
two genders, two forms
-o -a
oldvelho velha
madloucolouca
legitimatelegítimolegítima
shortcurtocurta
-ês-esa 
Portugueseportuguêsportuguesa
Chinesechinêschinesa
or -ora
hard-workingtrabalhadortrabalhadora
agitatoragitadoragitadora
two genders, one form
-a-a
dentistdentistadentista
idiotidiotaidiota
-e-e
enormousenormeenorme
strongforteforte

In addition, adjectives ending with the consonants –l, -s, -r, or -z also remain unaltered in the feminine form:

MASCULINEFEMININE
two genders, one form
-l-l
possiblepossívelpossível
easyfácilfácil
blueazulazul
-s-s
simplesimplessimples
politecortêscortês
lilacliláslilás
-r-r
particularparticularparticular
familiarfamiliarfamiliar
similarsimilarsimilar
-z-z
capablecapazcapaz
happyfelizfeliz
sagacioussagazsagaz
. . .

Here are a couple of anomalous cases, yet commonly used adjectives:

MASCULINEFEMININE
goodbomboa 
badmau

Determiners

Simply put, determiners are words introducing a noun and they normally come before it. For instance, in the phrases the boy and my uncle, the words the and my are determiners. 

Importantly, in Portuguese, determiners conform to the gender of the noun they refer to.  There are different types of determiners and below we’ll be focusing on a few subcategories.

Articles

In Portuguese, like in English, there are definite and indefinite articles. Here’s what they look like in their masculine and feminine forms:

MASCULINEFEMININE
the (definite)o
o carro (the car)
a
a casa (the house)
a (indefinite)um
um prato (a plate)
uma
uma mesa (a table)

Demonstratives

Demonstrative determiners are those words pointing out objects:

MASCULINEFEMININE
this este
este copo (this glass)
esta
esta porta (this door)
that esse
esse casaco (that jacket)
essa
essa camisa (that shirt) 
that over thereaquele
aquele café (that café over there)
aquela
aquela igreja (that church over there)

Possessives

These determiners indicate possession:

MASCULINEFEMININE
mymeu
o meu lápis (my pencil)
minha
a minha caneta (my pen)
your teu
o teu computador (your computer)
tua
a tua secretária (your desk)
his/herseu (dele/dela)
o seu pai (his/her father)
sua (dele/dela)
a sua mãe (his/her mother)

As you see above, in Portuguese (mainly in the European standard), you normally put an article before a possessive. 

What’s more, the determiners seu and sua agree with pai (father) and mãe (mother) respectively, and not with the implied son or daughter. In other words, from the last sentences of the table above, we can’t know if the third person they refer to is a man or a woman.

However, we often use the possessives dele and dela instead, which have a direct correspondence to his and her in English. Accordingly, dele and dela, like his and her, agree with the gender of the person that the sentence is referring to:

 O pai dele (his father)
O pai dela (her father)
A mãe dele (his mother)
A mãse dela (her mother)

Further reading! Portuguese Possessive Pronouns and Adjectives.

Numerals

In Portuguese, only the numbers one and two have distinct forms for masculine and feminine. Otherwise, the same word covers both genders:

MASCULINEFEMININE
oneum
um saco (one bag)
uma
uma mochila (one backpack)
twodois
dois sacos (two bags)
duas
duas mochilas (two backpacks)
threetrês
três sacos (three bags)
três
três mochilas (three backpacks)
. . .

Portuguese ordinal numbers, on the other hand, have always a masculine and a feminine form:  

MASCULINEFEMININE
firstprimeiro
primeiro lugar (first place)
primeira
primeira fila (first row)
secondsegundo
segundo lugar (second place)
segunda
segunda fila (second row)
thirdterceiro
terceiro lugar (third place)
terceira
terceira fila (third row)
. . .

Further reading! If you want a more comprehensive account of Portuguese numerals, head over to this article: Numbers in Portuguese: counting from 1 to infinity.

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