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Italian masculine or feminine nouns—how can you tell?

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All Italian nouns have a gender, masculine or feminine, and you can identify it by their ending and the article that precedes them. But what do you do when you don’t know the article and the ending is not clearcut? Read on to learn the rules and exceptions!

All Italian nouns have a gender, masculine or feminine, and you can identify it by their ending and the article that precedes them. But what do you do when you don’t know the article and the ending is not clearcut? Read on to learn the rules and exceptions!

Masculine versus Feminine Nouns

Let’s start by saying that all Italian nouns are split into two categories, masculine and feminine, which are called “genders.” It is important to know the gender of each noun since adjectives (see “Unpacking the grammar” for a refresher) and other parts of a sentence agree with, or change their endings, in order to “match” with the gender of the noun. 

  • For example: If you were to look in an Italian/English dictionary, you would find that the way to say “small” is piccolo. This is because the dictionary form of adjectives is provided in the masculine gender. However, the way to say “house” in Italian is casa and it is a feminine noun. Therefore, to say “a small house” you would say una casa piccola. Notice that the masculine form of the adjective piccolo had to be changed to the feminine form piccola in order to match with the gender of the noun casa. Any other ending would make the sentence incorrect.

How to identify the gender of the noun

Nouns are words that refer to people, animals, objects, places, actions, qualities, and ideas.

Nouns ending in –o or –a

For people and animals that end in –o or –a, those ending in –o are masculine and those ending in –a are feminine:

Screen Shot 2021-07-27 at 11.19.26 AM

Even if your mother tongue doesn’t have two distinct forms for feminine and masculine nouns, it’s easy to distinguish the grammatical gender of people and animals ending in –o and –a in Italian.

The same holds for objects, places, etc.: those that end in –o are masculine; those that end in –a are feminine:

Screen Shot 2021-07-27 at 11.20.06 AM

It can be weird to determine the gender of the noun when referring to words for objects, places, ideas, etc. since in English, for example, books are not thought of as being masculine and boxes are not thought of as being feminine. 

Considering the above examples, you might think that learning that nouns ending in –o are masculine and nouns ending in –a are feminine is the end of the story! But not all nouns end in –o or –a. How can we determine the gender of nouns ending in –e?

Nouns ending in –e 

It is easy to identify the gender of nouns whose physical gender is recognizable, for example padre [father – masculine] and madre [mother – feminine]. More generally though, it can be tricky to determine the gender of nouns ending in –e, so for these nouns, you’ll need to know the article. The Italian noun un ristorante [a restaurant], ending in –e, is preceded by the masculine article un [a]. Articles in Italian always agree with the gender of the nouns they precede: if the indefinite article introducing the noun ending in –e is masculine (un or uno) the noun will be masculine as well, if the article is feminine (una or un’), the same can be said for the noun. However, you may be thinking: does it matter, which article we reference? Should you look at the definite or indefinite article? Let’s have a look at the table:

Screen Shot 2021-07-27 at 11.20.34 AM

The definite article l’ [the] can be used for feminine and masculine nouns beginning with a vowel, while the indefinite article un [a/an] is used for masculine nouns only, and una/un’ for feminine nouns only. Therefore, relying on the indefinite article is your best bet for determining the gender of an Italian noun.

Here is a table summarizing what has been explained so far:

Screen Shot 2021-07-27 at 11.21.11 AM
Exceptions!

As it always happens, when you learn a rule and are happy, you then find out that there are exceptions that trigger the undo button… But think of them as additions to your repository of knowledge and dive into it!

Misleading nouns

In Italian, not all nouns follow the above rules; there are some exceptions and that is why once again we stress the article as the most important element to look for when identifying the gender of Italian nouns. Let's call these rule breakers “misleading nouns” because they look masculine (ending –o) or feminine (ending –a) but —surprise! — they are not. For example:

  • la mano (the hand — feminine)

  • il poeta (the poet — masculine)

This is a list of some frequently used masculine nouns ending in –a. In our list we offer some rules on how to recognize some of these misleading nouns.

Clues for gender if you do not know the article

Learners of Italian often ask what to do when the noun is not preceded by an article. You can look it up in a dictionary to see whether it is feminine or masculine, but if you don’t have one on hand, our clues for gender identification should be a helpful guide.

Check the endings!

You can easily determine the gender of the noun if it fits into one of the following four groups (but always remember that this is a general rule and there are exceptions):

FEMININE

  • Nouns ending in –ione or in –ie
    Examples: la decisione [the decision], la superficie [the surface]

  • Nouns ending in –i
    Examples: la crisi [the crisis], l'analisi [the analysis]

  • Nouns ending in –tà and –tù
    Examples: la felici [the happiness], la gioven [the youth]

MASCULINE

  • Nouns of foreign origin ending in a consonant
    Examples: il toast [the toast], il bar [the café]

Clues for how to form the feminine gender from masculine professions

You can easily form the feminine from masculine professions, or vice versa, in 2 cases: 

  1. Nouns for professions ending in –tore change to –trice in the feminine.
    Examples: lo scrittore → la scrittrice [the writer], il pittore → la pittrice [the painter]

  2. Nouns for professions ending in –ista or –a, are the same in the masculine and feminine forms and only change their articles according to the context.
    Examples: il/la pianista [the pianist], il/la dentista [the dentist], il/la collega [the colleague], l’atleta [the athlete]

Meaning changes

Finally, to stress how the gender system affects Italian nouns, we conclude by introducing a group of words that change their meanings entirely based upon their change in gender. For example, il banco (the desk — masculine) and la banca (the bank — feminine); il pasto (the meal — masculine) and la pasta (the pasta/pastry — feminine).

If you want to learn more, we have gathered some examples of meaning changes for Italian nouns for you.

After taking a look at the above rules you might think that remembering the gender of each noun takes practice. Yes, it’s true! So, if you’d like some more practice, you can do our Italian noun exercises and check your answers with the included key. Before doing them, don’t forget to take a look at the table we have created for you to review and learn more misleading nouns along with those from the above four groups you’ll find in the exercises as well as exceptions.

And if you are more advanced or more curious, check out these articles for more information on this topic:

Summary 

In conclusion, no matter how many exceptions we might list, our suggestion is to check the article preceding the noun. As we have seen, it’s best to rely on the indefinite article whenever you have doubts on the gender of any Italian noun. The indefinite article will be your key to opening all doors, since articles and nouns always agree in gender!

Remember, even if you still make some mistakes with vowel endings, Italians will still be able to understand youthe message will go through, as we say!  

Unpacking the grammar

  • Adjectives are words that are used to describe something, including people, animals, things, places, or ideas. Adjectives are used to make many types of descriptions, such as stating the color, amount, category, appearance, or possession of something or someone.

una ragazza simpatica             a nice girl

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