Duolingo wanted me to choose between multiple options for the translation of "She is the president of that organization".

I chose "Ella es la presidente de esa organización" but it was counted as wrong, because, they say, both that and "Ella es la presidenta de esa organización" are correct.

Why would "president" be either "la presidente" or "la presidenta"?

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    Just a note, they wrongly marked your answer as wrong. It's perfectly fine to say that. – clinch Jan 22 '15 at 23:38
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    @clinch: In Duolingo, when there are multiple options that are right, you have to pick all of them. They often have options such as "ellos..." and "ellas..." where if you don't pick both you get dinged. – B. Clay Shannon Jan 22 '15 at 23:41
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    Ah, alright, not too familiar with Duolingo. Thanks for clearing that up – clinch Jan 22 '15 at 23:46
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    Did you see this link in the accepted answer? Usually is the people (and not a government) who promote changes in the usage of the language, just by using it in a certain way. Any political government has little to say about what is correct. Also there are institutions that study the usage of the language by the common people and document how it is use. – Diego May 19 '15 at 19:06
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    Diego, I read the post, thanks. However, stating governments have very little to say about language is quite narrow. Keep in mind education of languages at school are directed by/through ministerial mandates, a task of the government in place. You and I, learnt to use the language as a combination of social interaction and school studies. It is both, you see? Both imprint us forever. If the Ministry of Education wants you to refer to the 'president' as 'presidenta', you'll learn so at school, because teachers will use the term, and they will do so because they need to follow the ministry. – Lola Berwoots May 19 '15 at 21:21

In spite of the rules to form the feminine form of some professions some of these nouns are developing their own feminine forms. Recommendation about their usage is to use only the accepted or established forms, although the RAE may not yet have caught up with all the forms that are currently accepted for the day-to-day spoken Spanish.

"Presidenta" is actually accepted, as the feminine form of "presidente". If you check the RAE entry for "Presidente" you'll see that there is a "com" abbreviation before its description as

Persona que preside.

If you hover over it, it will display the abbreviation definition as "nombre común en cuanto al género". That means that "presidente" is both a masculine and a feminine form, and as such is going to accept articles of both genders (both "el presidente" and "la presidente" are OK).

That is why there are two posible ways to refer to a female president in Spanish

La presidente

La presidenta

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  • Also, this other question might be a relevant or helpful resource. – Diego Jan 22 '15 at 15:14

Unfortunately, when it comes to languages, the answer to the question "Why?" is often quite simply because.

Indeed, etymologically speaking, the nouns ending in -nte are derived from the old active participle1 and that participle — and its modern adjective form — is invariable with respect to gender (but not number), by which we would expect the feminine form of every single -nte noun to likewise be -nte.

But language changes. We generally say that a language innovates when it comes up with a new way to distinguish two previously-conflated concepts. Sometimes that innovation is universal across a language (every verb in Spanish forms the future with infinitive + haberPRES.) and sometimes it isn't (not every verb accepts the emphatic passive). Sometimes the change occurs in one place, but not others (in English, the noun lightning, derived from an irregular present participle of the verb lighten, has developed into a verb unto itself to refer to the metereological events — but almost exclusively in the US and Canada. Elsewhere, to say “it lightninged earlier” would sound quite odd indeed).

As a verb, presidir need not bother with gender distinctions. As an active participle, presid(i)ente need not bother with gender distinctions. As an adjective, it is at least possible, but being generally accompanied by a noun, isn't hugely necessary. But as a noun, it's quite possible that it could be used in contexts where there is no accompanying gender information, especially since it's a title, for example, Amable Gómez Pérez, presidente.2

At some point, someone decided that it would be relevant to include the gender information within the noun and innovated the form presidenta. We can find examples in Spanish dating back to 1589, and for it to be used by such a learned person, it would undoubtedly have been in popular use for some time before then.

In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the change happened before Spanish branched off from Romance given the following:

Président, -ente. Personne qui préside une compagnie, une assemblée, un tribunal, une cour, etc. pour diriger ses travaux et assurer l'ordre de ses délibérations. (Dictionaire de l'Académie Française)

President presidenta. Persona que presideix (Diccionari de l'Institut d'Estudis Catalans)

Presidente, a, el/la. Persona que dirixe una xunta, un gobiernu, una corporación. (Diccionariu de l'Academia de la Llingua Asturiana)

Presidente (femenino: presidenta). Persoa que preside un acto, un tribunal, unha asociación, unha empresa, o goberno dun país etc. (Diccionario da Real Academia Galega)

The Portuguese femenine form, presidenta is further recognized by the Academia Brasileira de Letras in its Dicionario Ortográfico.

To say that it's wrong just because amanta doesn't exist is being disingenous. We have infante and infanta, gigante and giganta, among others.

But as I said, some words didn't fully undergo the process, leaving some speakers with presidente as the only form, and others having presidenta is the standard feminine. Hence, both are consider acceptable translations, just as translating relampagueó could be it lightened or it lightninged, depending on which English speaker you ask, and despite someone likely to complain regardless which you choose.

1. To form the participle in modern day Spanish, use the endings -ante (-ar verbs), and -iente (-er/-ir verbs). If the verb is a stem changing -ir verb, you'll need to do the second stem change, hence durmiente from dormir. This form can only be used as an adjective in modern Spanish, and is roughly equivalent to English's -ing form used as an adjective, that is to say.

2. Also, to further the (then-)necessary distinction, for many titles, the feminine form meant the wife of. So médica meant wife of the doctor, and infanta was wife of the (non-crown) prince.

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  • Nice answer, specially for the 1589 quote!!! Incredible! It indeed makes the argument that the modification of Presidente was/is political in nature rather difficult to maintain. And strange that they use the word Presidenta to refer to Minerva godess of wisdom... – Joze May 22 '15 at 8:48
  • @Joze It is curious, although when I was looking back, I found that the word presidente/a had quite a few uses that would seem odd to us today. Perhaps that's somewhat obvious, though, given that as a political position it wasn't that common until mid/late 1700s or so. – user0721090601 May 22 '15 at 19:52

The Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (DPD) has two entries to explain this:

Basically, the idea is that profession nouns ending in -e can be considered as having ambiguous gender, but, in some cases, they have developed a femenine ending in -a. In those cases, the -e form can also be generally used, so we have two usable feminine forms. The use of one or the other will depend on the speaker.

There are some special cases where the feminine has developed a special meaning of its own. The article mentions gobernanta, but I can think of others, such as asistenta. In those cases, you can use both the -e and the -a forms for the feminine, but they will have different meanings.

And why all of this? Well, languages are developed by their speakers. And it happens that Spanish speakers have developed the language in this way. There is no general rule that can tell you which of these nouns will have a feminine form in -a and which ones will not, unfortunately.

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  • Usually the RAE not yield as easily. "Presidenta" is one of the few cases in which the RAE yields by political correctness. I would add the noun lider and the feminine lideresa, which is very tendy in Chile actually. – Rodrigo Jan 22 '15 at 16:47
  • What's the special meaning behind asistenta? The word sounds completely wrong to my ears. – clinch Jan 22 '15 at 23:39
  • @clinch At least in Spain, an asistenta is a person that specifically assists in the house chores. A woman who works as an assistant in any other aspect would be an asistente. – Gorpik Jan 23 '15 at 8:06
  • @Rodrigo It is not a question of political correctness: it is a question of usage. There were no woman presidents (or very few of them) until recently, so the feminine of presidente was not used. But other feminines in -enta, such as cliente - clienta had formed well before the concept of PC existed. By the way, lideresa is also used in Spain, though somewhat facetiously when applied to a specific person (Esperanza Aguirre, leader of the Partido Popular in the Madrid region). – Gorpik Jan 23 '15 at 8:10
  • In my previous answer to @clinch's comment, I meant a woman who assists in house chores. All this feminines with special meanings developed for professions typically performed by women. – Gorpik Jan 23 '15 at 8:14

Some people, even in high Academic areas around hispanic america, hate "presidenta" with passion, they believe La presidente is more politically correct. But due to the fact that there's so many women president, the media has been using largely the term presidenta for over 15 years, there's really no point in using presidente anymore except for a few stubborn intellectual people. I am a university professor and I use presidentA.

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  • When a robot becomes president, what form will be used? It wouldn't surprise me if "medical science" even came up with a "bi-gender" person, and what then? – B. Clay Shannon May 18 '15 at 15:31
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    @B.ClayShannon It would likely depend on what the person/robot wants, as is the norm for those in the transgender community. There are bigender people already, more commonly known as intersex people (they have biological manifestations of both genders), and likewise, you would use the gender the person would prefer. – user0721090601 May 18 '15 at 20:20

Answering why 'presidente' and 'presidenta' seem to be now widely accepted forms, would require more than just quoting RAE's present definition of these terms or their historical usage in certain parts of the Ibero-American territories. Furthermore it can't be concluded, because it is not always a norm, that a generic noun which accepts both genders via 'El' and 'La', can be transformed into a feminine noun. A simple proof that this conclusion is flawed would be: El/La/un/una Amante, but not La Amanta, which would be totally incorrect. Therefore, such statement couldn't be considered a proper answer to the OP's original question. We see then that stating a fact (quoting RAE), doesn't explain the reasons for its existence. Such understanding would require a deeper analysis of the social frame, historical background and contemporary challenges we, as a whole (individuals, organisations and governments), have been facing due to strong movements for equality of gender, feminism and the democratisation of culture (Internet has only accelerated this process). As other fellows here have stated, the term 'presidenta' may have been in usage for a long, long time in certain social groups and Spanish-speaking places, however, one swallow doesn't make summer for all. Something has changed dramatically over the last decades: there have been global sociological changes, mass media intervention and access to cultural exchange on a massive scale, like never before. It can't be denied this reality has sponsored a lot of inconsistency in the usage of the Spanish language, over the last decades and at such a pace, that many, who wouldn't even qualify as elderly people, have been forced to accept (accepting doesn't mean agreeing) something that was embedded as wrong in their formative years. This is a tough exercise that unfortunately has become more frequent as years go by. I therefore would like to contribute to the explanation bringing up some of that analysis, so the person who asked this question doesn't just receive the 'RAE-says-so type of answer'. That simply doesn't explain why 'presidenta' is accepted nowadays. Let's have a different take:

I grew up in Santiago de Chile and Great Britain. I am a native Spanish speaker. Never in my childhood I was taught that neutral substantives could be masculine or feminine as well. They were either neutral or not, but not both, since something can't exist in two places at the same time. These inconsistencies were not practiced by well spoken people in Chile, and that has changed. Did this change due to media pressing for it? It is a clear representation of how, in the society we live in now, it would appear then to be OK to change ones mind about something, based on what is popular and not in what is common sense or consistent, which suggests we may be facing an era of absence of solid foundations and immutable principles, in which we change our minds for utilitarian reasons. More on these inconsistencies and mind flip-flopping can be read on the article from the New York Times:

'The Mind of a Flip-Flopper' by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

The term 'lideresa', for instance, I found it quite used and accepted during the time I lived in Mexico, but it was not something you could get away with in Chile without someone giving you an awkward look. We see then it may be appropriate, or not, depending on the cultural environment. We mustn't forget here that there has been, and there are, massive influences in the language spoken in some countries, coming from third countries. The perfect example here is Chile and Mexico/Spain. Many Chilean politicians were in exile in Mexico/Spain, got infused with Mexicanism/Spanish-isms and brought these back to Chile, naturally influencing the media and their social circle. You can read about this on the following source:

'Exiliados, emigrados y retornados. Chilenos en América y Europa, 1973-2004', del escritor José del Pozo Artigas ISBN: 956-284-498-6.

An even stronger influence takes place from the hand of the Mexican tv series which every day get to be watched by the average Chilean, the latter inevitably ending up transculturalised day after day. These are also Governmental decisions because, even when the Chilean administration choose not to, they could perfectly enforce the transmission of material mainly spoken or dubbed by Chilean-based artists, just like Spain enforces the broadcasting of most of the foreign films (even if these are of another Spanish speaking country) dubbed in Spanish, Iberic accent. As we see, political decisions have a lot to do with the way we end up transforming, manifesting and experiencing our language and culture all over the world. It is important to understand such decisions are not a collective work and as such, unfortunately, are taken only by a few. You can read further about the boom of the Mexican series in Chile in the following source from Univision. For further understanding of the degree in which individuals get influenced by TV language and in what degree these individuals integrate these influences in their own vocabulary, please refer to the following article:

'La influencia de un medio de comunicación: la televisión', which lists further references on its footer.

The 'presidente de Argentina' (as 2015), herself, said she wanted to be addressed as 'presidenta'. Some did not agree, others didn't accept it, nevertheless the majority of the media got used to using the feminine form 'presidenta'; readers got used to reading it. This illustrates the degree of power an administration has over the official and public usage of a language, in the end affecting us all. Just as rulers through history have even changed the religion of a country in order to achieve their own agendas. Please do not misunderstand my mentioning of this inevitable consequence, a political view! 'La presidente de Chile', Michele Bachelet, through permanent and official communications, overriding the neutral/generic term still figuring in the Chilean constitution, which refers to 'Presidente', establishes her persona as 'La Presidenta de la República', which can be verified at the following source:

'Contacte con La Presidenta'

A good example of the social engineering facilitated by educational overrides and changes are ministerial mandates. Keep in mind education of languages at school are directed by/through ministerial resolutions, a task of the government in place. You and I, learnt to use the language as a combination of social interaction and school studies and both are imprinted in us forever. If the Ministry of Education wants you to refer to the 'president' as 'presidenta', include changes in the curriculum, modernisms, even remove certain previously accepted and taught matters, etc., you'll learn so at school, because teachers must comply with the government's educational resolutions. You can read further on how the educational curricula get periodically updated at the following sources provided, for instance, on the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education or the Argentinian Federal Council for Education. To read more about new social engineering against what has been accepted as natural and correct, you can read the paper:

'Michelle Bachelet, un icono del feminismo radical, al frente de Chile' by José Ángel Gutiérrez, 2014.

If you disagree with this, it is perfectly fine, but don't make of your disagreement a motive to post false statements or try to deny the undeniable. I am just providing true facts and not making a personal remark about how language is or should be learned, neither am I saying individuals in a society don't have free will or a personal choice at exercising their preferred way to speak. Government's educational curricula for language teaching, normally and in democracy, should not prevent society from self-determination when it comes to the act and ways of expression, however they do influence and you have read why.

I am confident that whilst, to some, this came as a long post, it will be appreciated by some others. The levels of seriousness, importance and complexity of the reasons behind this matter required similar levels of dedication in answering.

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  • @guifa I deleted all previous comments since they are not necessarily relevant with the new heavy updates of Lola. Reread the answer if you wish to add something or bump me if you disagree :-) – Joze May 21 '15 at 14:15
  • I made some formatting for your answer. (there are still some minor formatting issues). +1 Other than that it's a good answer, another take on the question. – Joze May 21 '15 at 14:25
  • "simple proof that this conclusion is flawed would be: El/La/un/una Amante, but not La Amanta"... and yet we have el cliente / la clienta and el infante / la infanta. – user0721090601 May 21 '15 at 20:23
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    @guifa Agreed, there are many like that. Unfortunately examples can't be used as an instrument of definitive conclusion. Reasons must be entertained to explain why certain nouns would accept the direct feminine form whilst others wouldn't. – Lola Berwoots May 22 '15 at 0:49

I would like to go beyond this specific question for presidente. In spanish, ente is a noun by itself, wich means entity. The definition of both are obviously the same, something that exists, real or in essence.

In spanish, ente is used to personify a verb, almost like a suffix (ente and ante): Presidir (verb, to preside), so the person who presides is the Presidente. Some other examples, cantar (verb, sing) and cantante, cortar (verb, to cut) and cortante (something with the ability to cut), migrar and migrante, representar and representante, and so on.

Always this words are neutral, they aren't masculine nor feminine because they are refering to a person, and a person can be man or woman: quien preside es presidente (the one who presides is the president).

Now because of political reasons, presidenta is accepted, but I don't think people would say la cantanta, la inmigranta, una puerta muy resistenta, etc.

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  • Y "ente" es "pavo" en aleman ("Ente" is "duck" in German). "Falls es geht wie ein Ente, sieht aus wie ein Ente, muss es doch ein Ente sein", usw. – B. Clay Shannon May 21 '15 at 17:04
  • There are no neuter nouns. There are neuter pronouns (ello, esto, eso, aquello), a neuter article (lo), and a neuter direct object (also lo). Words that will affect gender agreement, but not form, based on the person/thing belong to the género común, not the género neutro. – user0721090601 May 21 '15 at 18:14

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