Here is an English example where someone is referring to a man as a turtle:

That turtle is slow. He is angry because he will not win. (calling that man a turtle)

In Spanish, the referenced subject is male (hombre), but the word used is female (tortuga). How are the adjectives slow and angry affected by this? Would they:

  1. Both be male because he is a man
  2. Both be female because the word used is female (in this case, would the second pronoun be female?)
  3. Be of different genders. Slow would be female because the subject of the first sentence is female, but angry would be male because the subject is a pronoun referencing the man directly.

In other words, which of these is correct*:

Esa tortuga está lento. Él está enfadado porque no ganará.

Esa tortuga está lenta. Él está enfadada porque no ganará.

Esa tortuga está lenta. Ella está enfadada porque no ganará.

Esa tortuga está lenta. Él está enfadada porque no ganará.

My bet is on the 3rd example.

*Unless my grammar is off.

  • 3
    I would say Ese "tortuga" está lento. Está enfadado porque no ganará. Because you are using "tortuga" as a substitute of the Name but the subject is still male whatever you call him. Except if you're trying to joke about his masculinity.
    – Laura
    Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 9:10

1 Answer 1


RAE explains this is the section "b" of this entry:

Sustantivos epicenos. Son los que, designando seres animados, tienen una forma única, a la que corresponde un solo género gramatical, para referirse, indistintamente, a individuos de uno u otro sexo. En este caso, el género gramatical es independiente del sexo del referente. Hay epicenos masculinos (personaje, vástago, tiburón, lince) y epicenos femeninos (persona, víctima, hormiga, perdiz). La concordancia debe establecerse siempre en función del género gramatical del sustantivo epiceno, y no en función del sexo del referente; así, debe decirse

  • La víctima, un hombre joven, fue trasladada al hospital más cercano

y no

  • La víctima, un hombre joven, fue trasladado al hospital más cercano * (Incorrecto).

En el caso de los epicenos de animal, se añade la especificación macho o hembra cuando se desea hacer explícito el sexo del referente:

  • La orca macho permanece cerca de la rompiente [...], zarandeada por las aguas de color verdoso» (Bojorge Aventura [Arg. 1992]).

So the adjective should agree the grammatical gender of the name even if it has another adjective which indicates it's of a different sex.

So probably the best way of saying that is:

Esa tortuga macho está lenta. (macho "indicates" it's masculine, but as tortuga is a femenine name it should be in femenine)

The second sentence can be both of these (depending on what the speaker wants to say):

(Ella) está enfadada porque no ganará ("ella" substitutes "la tortuga")

(Él) está enfadado porque no ganará ("él" substitutes "el animal" or "el macho" or any masculine name related)

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