I was going through a discussion thread over at duolingo ("How to use El and La in Spanish"), when I came upon the following question:

Anyone know the percentage of Spanish nouns ending in -a that are not feminine? 5%? 10%? Or is it just 1%?

It made me wonder if someone might have answered this question here at Spanish StackExchange, but after going through several pages, the closest answer I found (punctuation edited) appeared as follows

... 95% of the cases, female gender ends with an -a ...

in the following thread ("Beyond memorisation and time, how can you master Grammatical Gender in Spanish? [closed].")

From this, I could surmise that 5% of nouns ending in -a are masculine. However, since the user who wrote that doesn't cite any source, I have to wonder if that is just a rough guess. Is there anything more scientific that someone could provide on the percentage of nouns ending in -a that are masculine and the percentage ending in -o that are feminine?

Also, while I'm on the subject, does anyone know what percentage of Spanish nouns are feminine and what percentage are masculine (regardless of ending)?

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    Following the links on the duolingo thread I saw that Words That Break the Gender 'Rule' lists about 49 exceptions to the rule and many of those are very common nouns and I don't think this is a comprehensive list. So my advice is do not trust those unofficial rules. It is not that people won't understand the meaning of a sentence if you mix a few noun genders. With time and practice you will get them right. – DGaleano Jul 13 '16 at 18:48
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    In order to give you a percentage, we would first have to determine what constitutes a masculine word ending in -a (for example, do we include words ending in -ista, as they are of the common gender, but in a given instance could be masculine), determine if any productive suffixes (like -ista) meet our criteria, and then determine the number of nouns in Spanish, which is not finite :-) – guifa Jul 13 '16 at 20:46
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    Interesting question! I've been browsing the NGLE because they give the percentage of verbs of the 1st/2nd/3rd conjugation, so I thought maybe they did the same thing for nouns, but no luck so far. Let's see if someone finds some paper on the subject! – Yay Jul 16 '16 at 17:02
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    More importantly, how would you count nouns that could be both? How do you adjust for the fact that language changes all the time, so new nouns are created all the time while archaic ones are dropped? – Paul Jul 17 '16 at 15:10
  • All of you pose some really intelligent, well thought-out questions, some of which touch on what I've been grappling with during the past few days as I've attempted to approach what I thought would be a simple question to answer. In fact, I have a bit of a headache as I try to wrap it all up (although truth be told, the headache probably has more to do with the oven that keeps leaking gas). All environmental problems aside, I'm going to post a quick answer to some pseudo-scientific research I did. It might not meet the standards of the uber erudite, but at least I made the attempt. – Lisa Beck Jul 18 '16 at 6:32
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Here is a quick answer to a question that was a bit more challenging to answer than I had anticipated. Using my best estimates off of some pseudo-scientific research I conducted recently (link to potential paper/article and/or slide show to follow), my guess is that approximately .5 percent of nouns with feminine grammatical gender end in -o. In this study, that looked at 1,800 of the most frequent nouns in Spanish, I only found three -- la mano, la foto, and la moto. Approximately 3 percent of nouns with masculine grammatical gender end in -a. These include words such as "el día," "el idioma," and "el clima." These nouns I refer to do not include nouns that have both biological and grammatical gender.

Among those nouns that take both, approximately 7 percent of these end in -a and are used for both male and female. Examples of these include "el artista," "el turista," and "el especialista." 3 percent of nouns that have both biological and grammatical gender and end in -o are feminine (and also masculine). Some are disputed (such as "miembro") but some of the more commonly known ones are "la soldado," "la testigo," and "la modelo." For beginning students of Spanish, keep in mind that articles (definite or indefinite) and adjectives modifying these nouns must match biological gender. In other words, if your mom is an artist you would refer to her as "una artista," not "un artista."

If anyone disputes any of the above or knows of a more rigorous study than mine, which only examined 1,800 of the most frequent nouns, please share it with us here. If it is a more worthwhile study than my own, I'll even give up the checkmark for it.

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    Just commenting on the three female gender exceptions (la mano, la foto, la moto). "Foto" and "moto" are short for "fotografía" and "motocicleta", both ending in -a, so the gender rule stills apply. Regarding "la mano", that it's related to the origin of the word in Latin (I believe), and back then was a feminine gender. You can see this when using the plural "las manitas", or when you say "las manecillas del reloj" (long and short hands of the analog clock). Maybe some of the wise folks here can give more precise input on this. Very interesting numbers in your 1800 frequent nouns study. – Delonix R. Jul 18 '16 at 16:00
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    I agree with @DelonixR., the correct words for moto and foto are motocicleta and fotografía. About manitas, I think that vary regionally. In Chile for example we say las manitos. I have a coworker from Venezuela who says they also use manitos but a coworker from México says they use manitas. – Vladimir Nul Jul 18 '16 at 16:34
  • Gracias for the comment and the compliment, @DelonixR. Just so everyone knows, I am aware that "foto" and "moto" are short for longer words that are feminine, but I am glad you mentioned it because perhaps others do not know that. For the record, though, this study wasn't so much about gender exceptions as it was about the orthography of a word. I simply searched for words that ended in -o, regardless of whether they were shortened from a longer word. More importantly, I'm really glad you found this interesting and thanks for letting me know. – Lisa Beck Jul 18 '16 at 17:17
  • As mentioned in my comment to Delonix R., I am aware that "moto" and "foto" are shorter versions of "motocicleta" and "fotografía." I wouldn't consider them "incorrect," however. Informal? Sure, but "motocicleta" and "fotografía" aren't the "correct" words; they are more formal and fuller/longer/more complete words that represent the same concept. – Lisa Beck Jul 18 '16 at 17:28
  • @LisaBeck Nice job. Where did you get the list of those 1800 nouns? – Vladimir Nul Jul 18 '16 at 18:30

That's really hard to say, I don't believe there's any "scientific" way to prove this or that.

And besides that, why do you need to know the exactly percent? Would that make you speak better spanish?

I like to say better that most of the nouns that end in -a are feminine and most of the nouns ending in -o are masculine. Or otherwise, few of the nouns ending with -o are feminine. That gives you more chances not to mistake.

You have to considere that not all of the nouns end in -a or -o, this is spanish, not italian :)

Another consideration is that there are nouns that change their gender according to the surrounding article. For example you have agua (water) which is feminine, but you say el agua and not "la agua". This is for phonetical convenience.

There is also the cases of the nouns that are usually shortened, like foto, you say la foto because the whole word is fotografía which is feminine.

I hope to have helped a little.

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    Oops. I agree the value of this question is very low because knowing that would be no more than a party conversation starter but I have to say that your example about "arena" is wrong. In RAE you can see their example of "escribir en la arena" maybe you are confused with this other examples like agua, águila, etc ....see this question spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/44/… – DGaleano Jul 13 '16 at 18:23
  • @DelonixR. Updated the answer, thanks – Vladimir Nul Jul 13 '16 at 18:44
  • I'm not DelonixR but ... your welcome :-) – DGaleano Jul 13 '16 at 18:50
  • Hehe, there was another comment, I think it was deleted. – Vladimir Nul Jul 13 '16 at 18:55
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    There may be a scientific way. Most dictionaries say, for each word, whether it's a noun or not and whether it's masculine of feminine. A computer program could easily check every noun that ends in 'a' or 'o' and count which ones are feminine/masculine. I just need a database of words that can be easily accessed by a computer program. – Santiago Tórtora Jul 13 '16 at 20:01

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