How can I figure out the gender of a word in Italian?

The basics

Italian is fairly simple when it comes to gender, but there are a few occasions when a new noun can trip you up. Here are some basic rules to keep in mind:

1) Nouns ending in -o (singular) and -i (plural) are masculine.

2) Nouns ending in -a (singular) and -e (plural) are feminine.

3) A lot of the time, the gender of the noun matches up with the thing itself; obviously, 'uomo' is masculine and 'donna' is feminine, and 're' is masculine and 'regina' is feminine, but this can also work for things like 'infermiere' ('male nurse') and 'infermiera' (female nurse').

Where does it get tricky?

- You might have come across a word like 'problema' and applied the basic rules, only to be told that it's 'il problema', not 'la problema'. Why does this happen? Well, some words come from Greek and end in -ma, so they become masculine in Italian.

Examples of this include: il sistemail programma and il clima.


- The same thing applies to the suffix -ista, which corresponds to the English -ist, but can be used even more widely. It ends in an a, but it's still masculine by default, and you should apply rule 3 to words like this.

So a journalist is il giornalista if he's male or la giornalista if she's female.

Other uses of it can range from jobs (artista) to political views (comunista) to outlooks on life (ottimista).


- Plurals can sometimes be a bother. You see a nice, normal word like il dito and think "Oh great, the plural must be i diti!", right? Sorry...Italian's thrown a spanner in the works.

These special nouns change their genders in the plural and often do something funny, so il dito becomes le dita, just like l'osso becomes le ossa. Unfortunately, you'll just have to take a guess the first time and learn them as you go.


- By this point, you just won't trust a lot of Italian nouns. Understandable. Especially when there are things like il cinema and la foto thrown in to confuse you. Perhaps this stuff is easier to understand when you know why it happens. Well, il cinema was originally il cinematografo, but people got sick of saying these long, drawn-out words and shortened them, so la fotografia is now just la foto. Get it?

What a headache!

Italian does have a lot of small things like these that can trip you up, but it's also incredibly helpful when you want to guess a word from the English. Italian uses a lot of cognates - that is, words that come from the same source so are basically the same - and knowing a few small ending pairs can help you guess not only the gender, but often the whole word in Italian.

- So, if you see an English word like action or tradition, you'll recognise this -tion ending. Italian has just the same: -zione. A lot of the time, you can guess the Italian (in this case azione and tradizione) from the English. Best of all, you always know these nouns will be feminine.

Other feminine endings include: -zone (like calzone), -tà (like unità), -tù (like gioventù) and -trice (like attrice).

- The same goes for masculine nouns; any -ism becomes an -ismo (like fascismo), any -ment becomes a -mento (like movimento), and you always know that -ore (like colore) and -tore (like attore) are automatically masculine.

If in doubt, guess and you'll probably be right. Otherwise, try finding a synonym that uses an ending you're sure about. 

Raphael T. GCSE Italian tutor, A Level Italian tutor, Uni Admissions ...

1 year ago

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