Home Language HacksItalian Masculine vs. Feminine? How Grammatical Gender in Italian Works (Step by Step Guide)

Masculine vs. Feminine? How Grammatical Gender in Italian Works (Step by Step Guide)

How do you know if a word is feminine or masculine in Italian? Easy! Follow this simple step-by-step guide

by Michele
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Grammatical gender of Italian nouns
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You already know many Italian words, many food-related: including pizza, carbonara, risotto, spaghetti, lasagne, and gnocchi! What you may not know is that Italian words like these are gendered; this means that they can be either feminine or masculine. This is called grammatical gender. So, how do you know if a word is feminine or masculine in Italian? And why are Italian words feminine or masculine? 

In this guide, we’ll look at what grammatical gender is, how to find out the gender of a word in Italian, and how to use Italian definite and indefinite articles.

Pronti? (Ready?) Cominciamo! Let’s get started!

Why is grammatical gender important?

If you’re new to language learning, you may have never heard of grammatical gender. When we talk about gender in terms of language learning, it means that a word can be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. In Italian, all nouns, articles, pronouns and adjectives have a gender maschile (masculine) and femminile (feminine). To help you brush up on these basic grammatical terms, here is a quick recap:

Nouns – Generally speaking, this is anything you can place a/an or the in front of. This could be a place, idea, animal, thing, event, or person. For example, a bowl of pasta or the Colosseum.

Definite/indefinite articles – this is a word placed before a noun to indicate whether we are talking about a specific thing or in general. In English, we use the when speaking about a specific thing. For example, the house. This is called a definite article. When we speak about something in general, we use a. For example, a house. This is called an indefinite article.

Pronouns – A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun in a sentence. In English, we use I, you, he/she/it, we, you (plural), they. For example, in the sentence ‘Mario ate a pizza’ we can replace Mario’s name with He to say He ate a pizza’.

Adjectives – Anything that you can place is in front of is an adjective. An adjective describes something. For example, is small, is round, is smart, is hot.

Gender in Italian

In Italian, all nouns have a specific gender (masculine and feminine) and number (singular and plural). It’s important to note that you shouldn’t confuse these grammatical terms with the biological terms ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Once upon a time, English also used grammatical gender. In fact, there are still some leftovers. Have you ever noticed that we spell blonde with an e, when referring to a female and blond when referring to a male? What about how we instinctively refer to cars and ships as her, or she. This isn’t logical, it’s custom. Remember this when learning Italian words.

Italian articles

Just like in English, there are two main types of articles in Italian: definite, and indefinite.

  • The definite article is used to introduce nouns that refer to a specific item. In English, we would use the article the.
  • The indefinite article is used when we know what type of person or thing the noun refers to, but not which individual; they are equivalent to the articles a and an in English. The indefinite article has no plural.

How to identify the gender of a noun in Italian

The reason why any given noun is feminine or masculine is not always clear. Identifying the gender of Italian nouns is fairly simple and easy. The clue is in the endings! Most Italian nouns end in a vowel. If a noun ends with a consonant, it’s of foreign origin.

The endings or nouns are almost always consistent, whether they are masculine or feminine. There are exceptions, of course. Now, let’s look at some of the words (or nouns) we saw earlier to discover their gender.

  • Pizza is feminine. You can tell from the ending in -a . The same applies to ‘carbonara’
  • Risotto is masculine. When we see the ending -o, this usually lets us know the word is masculine.
  • Spaghetti is also masculine, but the letter -i defines a masculine word in the plural form. Tip: the word ‘spaghetto’ doesn’t exist, but I challenge you to have a dish with just one spaghetto! Not enough, to be sure!
  • Lasagne is feminine plural. We know this because it ends with an -e.

These endings of Italian words are quite important to remember. So let’s summarize these rules again. We have:

  • o is the ending of masculine words eg. biscotto (cookie/biscuit)
  • a is the ending of feminine words eg. mozzarella
  • i is the ending of masculine plural words eg. tortellini
  • e is the ending of feminine plural words eg. tagliatelle

There are, of course, some exceptions – we wouldn’t be Italians without exceptions! – but the rule applies to most cases.

Gender of Italian nouns guide - How to identify the gender of Italian nouns

The Singular Definite Article in Italian

Gender also affects the kind of article we need to put before a noun.

Italian has its fair share of articles but, of course, articles have to match the gender and number of the word they relate to. Sounds difficult? No! It’s just a question of practice – the more you read or listen to Italians speaking, the more familiar articles will become!

Let’s look at each article one by one.

First of all, the definite articles – what in English we identify with as the.

  • The risotto – il risotto → il is the masculine article with words starting with most consonants
  • The pizza – la pizza la is the feminine article with words starting with any consonant

There are a few more definite articles to consider:

  • We use lo with masculine words starting with gn, s + consonant, pn, ps, x, y and z.
    For example, we say lo sport, lo yogurt, and lo zio (the uncle).
  • We use l’ with masculine and feminine words starting with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u).
    For example, l’autostrada (highway), l’amico (the male friend)

The Plural Definite Article in Italian

Now, let’s take a look at nouns in the plural form such as… spaghetti, tagliatelle, lasagne, but also bambini (children), nonni (grandparents) and fratelli (brothers).

La famiglia has to be reckoned with, especially if you have an Italian background!

Let’s take a look at plural definite articles:

  • le is used before feminine words in the plural starting with consonants or vowels
    eg. le lasagne, le nonne (grandmothers), etc.
  • i is used before masculine words starting with most consonants.
    eg. i nonni (the grandparents), i fratelli (brothers/siblings)
  • gli is used before masculine words starting with vowels, gn, s + consonant, pn, ps, x, y and z.
    eg. gli spaghetti, gli zii (uncles)

Summary of Italian definite articles

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far. So, let’s take a look at the five rules for using definite articles:

Rule #1
Lo (plural gli) is used before masculine nouns that begin with gn, s + consonant, pn, ps, x, y and z.
Example: lo specchio (the mirror), gli specchi (the mirrors)

Rule #2
Il (plural i) is used before masculine nouns that begin with all other consonants.
Example: il biglietto (the ticket), i biglietti (the tickets)

Rule #3
La (plural le) is used before feminine nouns that begin with a consonant.
Example: la macchina (the car), le macchine (the cars)

Rule #4

L’ (plural gli) is used before masculine nouns that begin with a vowel.
Example: l’amico (the male friend), gli amici (the friends)

Rule #5
L’ (plural le) is used before feminine nouns that begin with a vowel.
Example: l’ambulanza (the ambulance), le ambulanze (the ambulances)

Gender of Italian nouns guide - Summary of Italian Definite ArticlesOr put another way, here is a table of all possible definite articles.

Gender of Italian nouns Singular Plural Examples
Masculine il i il treno (train)
il tavolo (table)
il panino (sandwich)
– begins with a vowel l’ gli l’estratto (extract)
l’ambasciatore (ambassador)
– begins with gn, s + consonant, pn, ps, x, y and z lo gli lo gnomo (the gnome),
lo studente (the student)
lo pneumatico (the tyre),
lo psicologo (the psychologist),
lo yogurt (the yoghurt),
lo zaino (the backpack),
lo zio (the uncle)
Feminine la le la mamma, la pizza
– begins with a vowel l’ le l’area, l’internet, l’unione, l’idea

Gender of Italian nouns guide - Table of Italian Definite ArticlesThe Italian Indefinite Article

We know all the ways to say ‘the’, in Italian. So, how do we translate ‘a’ and ‘an’ in Italian? We have four options: un, uno, una, un’. Does a certain card game spring to mind? Like UNO!? This can be a great memory hook to help you remember that UNO means one, or a/an.

Look at these words. Can you guess which articles match each word? Let’s try!…..

  • panino (sandwich) → masculine singular … What is it? un panino!
  • ….. mamma (mum) → feminine singular … What is it? una mamma! Bravo!

When do we use uno? Can you guess? Think back to the definite masculine article where we used lo, this is its indefinite form, uno. Let the final -o in both of these articles help you to remember this rule. Again, uno is used before masculine words starting with the rebellious consonants gn, s + consonant, pn, ps, x, y and z.

  • uno zio (an uncle)
  • uno studente (a male student)
  • uno psicologo (a male psychologist)

Last but not least, we have un’. This indefinite article is used before feminine words starting with a vowel. The apostrophe is there to avoid doubling up on vowels so it’s easier to pronounce and rolls off the tongue.

  • un’amica (a female friend)
  • un’acqua minerale (a mineral water)

Summary of Italian indefinite articles

Here are four rules to apply when using indefinite articles:

Rule #1
Uno is used before masculine words that begin with z or s + consonant, ps, or gn.
Example: uno zaino (a backpack)

Rule #2
Un is used before all other masculine words that begin with any other consonant or vowel.
Example: un aeroplano (an airplane)

Rule #3
Una is used before feminine words that begin with a consonant.
Example: una stazione (a station)

Rule #4
Un’ is used before feminine words that begin with a vowel.
Example: un’automobile (a car)

Gender of Italian nouns guide - Summary of Italian Indefinite ArticlesAs you come across new words in Italian you’ll start to recognise and remember these rules instinctively.

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How Gender in Italian works

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