Masculine or feminine; ¿un problema?
When beginner students start their Spanish lessons, typically they are told that masculine nouns end in “o” (teléfono) and feminine nouns end in “a” (casa). Well, the caveat to this over-simplification is that it is used only in order to easily introduce students to the rules of agreement in gender with nouns, articles and adjectives (La Casa Blanca, el teléfono rojo).
In all honestly, several pages could be written about exceptions and comments to the “feminine, a”, “masculine, o” convention – for instance: la mano (the hand), el día (the day).
The top winners among the many common errors that arise as a result of this “rule” occur with words that end with “-ma” include: “La problema es seria…”, “las temas (subject, topic) del artículo…”; “es una sistema perfecta”; “esta programa de televisión…”. These words (el tema, el problema, etc.) are masculine in spite of ending in “-ma”. Many words ending in “-ma” are masculine. More examples: el poema, el teorema, el clima, el fantasma (ghost) among others. Why the inconsistency? Most of these come from neutral words of Greek origin that were adopted in Spanish as masculine nouns. Notably, many of these words have some relationship with the arts and philosophy.
With that said, not all “-ma” words are masculine. For example: la cama, (bed), la broma (joke), la firma (signature, firm), etc.
My advice is not to memorize every exception. Instead practice with the more common words ending in “-ma” such as: el problema, el sistema, el tema, el programa, el clima, el poema. Sometimes you may have a doubt between the masculine or feminine form with words of “-ma” endings. Well, yes, but don’t worry–it is not “un drama”.
Check back here every Friday to find new articles. Usually you will have a chance to apply your Spanish skills by sending us your own sample sentences each week.