Get a grip on masculine and feminine forms in Portuguese

by Bernard O'Shea

In Portuguese, as is common in Romance languages, nouns are either masculine or feminine, and the adjectives and articles that qualify them have to match their number and gender. When you are learning words In Portuguese it is helpful to include the definite or indefinite article in the learning process to make it easier to remember if a word is masculine or feminine.

The definite article

“The” in Portuguese is either o (pronounced as oo rather than owe) before a masculine singular noun, or a in front of a feminine singular noun. In the plural, you usually just add an s.

  • o livro = the book
  • os livros = the books
  • a caneta = the pen
  • as canetas = the pens

Incidentally, the os and as are pronounced like oosh and ash, which is why Portuguese – particularly the European variety – can be very much a “whoosh whash whoosh”-sounding language, particularly when spoken fast.

The indefinite article

A” or “an” is um in front of a masculine noun (singular, obviously), or uma in front of a feminine noun.

  • um copo = a cup, glass or tumbler
  • uma cidade = a city

Unlike in some Romances languages, there is no problem with the vowels of the articles appearing in front of a noun beginning with a vowel

  • o amigo = the (male) friend
  • a amiga = the (female) friend
  • uma amiga = a (female) friend

Unilke in English, in Portuguese there is a plural form of the indefinite article, meaning “some“:

  • uns copos = some cups, glasses
  • umas cidades = some cities

So far, so good? Vamos continuarlet’s continue

How to recognise whether words are masculine or feminine

As in other Romance languages, nouns denoting male beings are masculine. Hence o homen = the man, o senhor = the gentleman, o filho = the son, o irmão = the brother, o tio = the uncle, o pai = the father.

Those denoting female beings are feminine. Hence a mulher = the woman, a senhora = the lady, a filha = the daughter, a irmã = the sister, a tia = the aunt, a mãe = the mother.

The masculine plural form can cover both male and females. For example, os pais can mean the fathers or the parents, and filhos can mean sons or children. This is typical of Romance languages.

Male words have female equivalents where appropriate, just as English has “actor” and “actress”. For example, o gata is the male cat and a gata is the female cat,  o velho is the old man and a velha is the old woman.

Patterns based on word endings.

Nouns ending in o are usually masculine

  • o rio = the river
  • o ano = the year
  • o vinho = the wine
  • BUT  a foto = the photo, a tribo = the tribe

Nouns ending in me are usually masculine

  • um nome = a name
  • o volume = the volume, tome
  • BUT  a fome = the hunger

Nouns ending in a tend to be feminine

  • a casa = the house
  • a hora = the hour
  • a data = the date

However, there are quite a few exceptions to the ‘a ending is feminine’ rule. For example, all the words that come from Greek ending in ma such as o telegrama and o drama; and words ending in a that denote male beings such as o papa, the pope, and o guia, the male guide (or the guidebook).

Other common exceptions are

  • o dia = the day
  • o mapa = the map
  • o planeta = the planet
  • o cometa = the comet

Nouns ending in gem, ie, tude, and dade are feminine

  • a viagem the journey
  • a espécie = the sort, kind
  • a juventudethe youth (abstract noun for quality of being young)
  • a universidade = the university

Nouns ending in ção, são, stão, and gião when they correspond to the English endings –tion, –sion, –stion, and –gion respectively are feminine… (the ão is a very nasal sound .. a bit like the “own” part of “frown”.)

  • a nacão = the nation
  • a confusão = the confusion
  • a congestão = the congestion
  • a região = the region

How to form plurals

When the singular word ends in a vowel you normally add an s; hence livro becomes livros (books)

But when the word ends in r or z you add es; hence rapaz becomes rapazes (boys) and mulher becomes mulheres (women).

A singular word that ends in m changes to ns in the plural; hence homen becomes homens (men), viagem become viagens (journeys) etc.

When a singular words ends in al, el, ol or ul, the l is usually dropped and becomes is instead: o hospital, os hospitais (hospitals), o hotel, os hotéis (hotels), o lençol, os lençóis (sheets). But note, the Brazilian currency is o real in the singular but os réis in the plural. 

If a singular word ends in s, the plural depends on whether the last syllable is stressed or not (the accents on words in Portuguese indicate which syllable is stressed; if there is not accent then normally it is the penultimate syllable). If the stress is on the final syllable then the s gets an es added after it; hence o país (the country) becomes os países (the countries). But if the stress is not on the final syllable then the word does not change; hence o lápis (the pencil ) and os lápis (pencils)

When a singular word ends in ão, normally this changes to ões in the plural; a estação (the station) becomes as estações, and again the nasal sound at the end is very strong (like the ending of “groins” in English). But sometimes the ão becomes ães  for example, o cão, os cães (the dog/dogs). And just to complicate things even more, some ão words just add an s in the plural. For example, o irmão becomes simply os irmãos (brothers) and a mão becomes as mãos (hands).

Geographic names

Gender of countries in Portuguese

Countries can be either masculine or feminine, but there are a few that are neuter, including Portugal itself. On the map,

  • countries with masculine names are in green
  •  those with feminine names are purple
  • those in yellow are neuter.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

The names of months, seas, rivers and mountains are usually masculine.

The names of cities, towns, islands and continents are usually feminine. But Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are not. I guess they are masculine because the word rio (river) is masculine as per the o rule above, and because Saint Paul was masculine.

The female equivalent of São is Santa, as in Santa Catarina (Saint Catherine, but also the name of a southern state in Brazil). The adjective santo/santa means “holy“.

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camilasantossimmons December 11, 2013 - 4:40 am

Useful tips, I will forward it to my Aussie husband as this is a recurrent question in my house. I loved the diagrams too…

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Bernard O'Shea December 13, 2013 - 8:51 pm

Ola, hello. Thanks for your comments and I look forward to reading more of your blog. It’s always interesting to hear a Brazlian/Aussie perspective. Boa sorte

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Dillon March August 22, 2014 - 12:15 am

Hi Bernard!

This is a great post! Lots of really great tips and resources. I’ve started preparing to learn Portuguese (and plan to do so more full time next summer), but I’ve had difficulty with the singular definite articles (o, a) because I’m used to seeing the definite article with some type of consonant like in French, Italian or Spanish as you know. But I guess it will take some getting used to. 🙂

I also really enjoyed the meme you had at the beginning! That’s hilarious! 🙂

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Bernard O'Shea August 26, 2014 - 8:58 pm

Hi Dillon, I hope you are well. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you enjoyed that article. It seems like you are gifted with languages so no doubt you will take to Portuguese quite well, but I must warn you that often when I want to speak Portuguese the French words come out instead, and when I want to speak French I blurt in Portuguese. But I think they are both lovely languages. Your blog is impressive but must be hard work (or time-consuming) for you. My French is rather rusty so it is the sort of thing I need. All the best, Bernard

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Raysean Johnson October 30, 2015 - 11:08 am

helped me a lot

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Sauce for the Gender – Luso September 12, 2016 - 4:20 am

[…] Hutchinson and Janet Lloyd, with some supplemental examples cribbed from Fun With Portuguese and My Five Romances. I also got some tips from Benny the Irish Polyglot. I also read an entertaining post on the […]

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