Motivation for the question: Let's say my son is describing to me something that was said at school, and I'm finding it hard to figure out whether it was said by some adults or by some students. (Children's descriptions of things that happened at school can be a bit hard to follow sometimes.) I ask

Espera, ¿quienes dijeron eso, los muchachos?

Sometimes at this point he gets hung up on gender, thinking that I'm trying to make a distinction about boys vs. girls. I've explained to him that terms like "los papás," "los padres de familia," and "los muchachos" encompass both genders unless the context suggests otherwise. In other words, in Spanish one assumes that these terms include a mix of both genders. But I would like to understand better the boundaries of this assumption.

  1. How far does this assumption go?

  2. Does the assumption ever extend to the singular, as in English? (For example, "He who hesitates is lost" and "When a party enters into a rental agreement with a tenant, he has certain rights and responsibilities" apply just as much to women as to men.)

Edit -- clarification:

I'm not asking about how to express myself. (I believe I explained my thinking about that in the question, and it aligns with what you wrote.) And I'm certainly not asking about translating. I'm asking about how the meaning is taken in various contexts upon hearing (1) the masculine plural in a general (ambiguous) context; and (2) the masculine singular. Regarding the latter, obviously in aphorisms (dichos), the masculine singular is taken to represent humankind. But what about conversational remarks?

In short, how far does the unisex assumption extend (when listening to, or reading, an utterance in an informal context)?

  • For me it is exactly as you say, and as for your examples I will translate them as follows: "El que duda pierde" and "Cuando un inquilino firma un arrendamiento con un arrendatario este tiene ciertos derechos y responsabilidades" [todo en masculino]
    – DGaleano
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 19:16
  • @DGaleano - Great, now, to find the boundary, I need examples in the gray, in-between zones. Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 19:18
  • I can't think of "gray" examples. In case of doubt always use masculine. I think there is a Tweet from the RAE or an article of Fundeu about that. I've been looking for it but have not been able to find it yet.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:00
  • Here it is. rae.es/consultas/…
    – DGaleano
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:01

3 Answers 3


How far does this assumption go?

Well, it depends on one's point of view. Clearly in your head the distinction is adultos(m./f.) and niños(m./f.), but in his head he for some reason in his mind he's wanting to distinguish niños(m.) and niñas(f.).

Unfortunately, as a speaker you cannot force the listener the interpret a masculine noun as necessarily inclusive of both genders. As one of the other answers points out, despite the common thinking that the two genders in Spanish are masculine and feminine, it's actually unmarked and feminine which is a result of how Indo-european evolved gender.

As a result, muchachas is feminine always, but muchachos is masculine only in contrast to muchachas.

Does the assumption ever extend to the singular, as in English? (For example, "He who hesitates is lost" and "When a party enters into a rental agreement with a tenant, he has certain rights and responsibilities" apply just as much to women as to men.)

Yes, absolutely. Going back to the previous statement, we can also say that muchacha is feminine always, but muchacho is masculine only in contrast to muchacha, and otherwise is what's known as unmarked, that is, it holds no actual gender information, despite us normally saying it's in the masculine.

Thus you might say "Necesito un médico", but you don't actually care whether it's a guy or a girl. But if you say "Necesito una médica", you'd be actually specifying a female doctor. You cannot specify you want a male doctor merely by modifying médico, you'd need to add on something like y no una médica.

In many cases, however, there are epicene nouns that are used instead, for example, "una parte" for contracts, which obviates the need to worry about gender.

  • This is helpful. What you said about médico makes sense -- I'm used to this from músico. // For the plural, might a native speaker ever make the same mistake my son did? In what situations? // For the singular, would this stretch to the problem outlined in spanish.meta.stackexchange.com/q/2812/9385 and spanish.stackexchange.com/q/23963/9385? Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 4:55
  • See also: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/10765/4366 Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 5:48
  • If you put a heavy inflection on "médico", would it be understood to mean a male doctor? Or would you probably still have to be more explicit?
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 23:35
  • 1
    @brucewayne it might be interpreted as contrastive, but could just as easily interpreted as contrasting médico with médica, or with some other profession like enfermero. You could perhaps hear someone add a half stress or elongation to the final -o, but would only sound natural if in response to someone else. Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 5:11

If you were to ask "Quienes dijeron eso, tus compañeros?" it would refer to class-mates of all genders.

It is generally assumed that if you use the 'male' gender it can also encompass the 'female' gender as well - but sometimes gender as a whole is omitted. For example - "He who hesitates is lost" or "El que hesita, pierde" or even "Quien Hesita, pierde."

So in both examples it would apply to the female gender.

Also if you make a male gender plural, I think that's enough 'amigo' vs 'amigos', 'el' vs 'ellos'.

  • please just make a little correction. " El que hesita..." uses masculine. "Quien hesita..." it is really neutral. And welcome and congratulations on your first answer. ---- I'll give your first +1 :-)
    – DGaleano
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 20:56

In the case you are talking about a group of people that includes both males and females you should always use masculine form just as if the group would be only males.

You should use the female form only if the group is formed of only female members.

This is part of what the RAE has said about it. Here

El uso genérico del masculino se basa en su condición de término no marcado en la oposición masculino/femenino. Por ello, es incorrecto emplear el femenino para aludir conjuntamente a ambos sexos, con independencia del número de individuos de cada sexo que formen parte del conjunto. Así, los alumnos es la única forma correcta de referirse a un grupo mixto, aunque el número de alumnas sea superior al de alumnos varones.

So in short, if the group contains people from both genders, it is incorrect to use the feminine.

There should be no gray areas here. According to the RAE reference, it is not dependent on the number of individuals of each gender; so if there is a group of 99 females plus 1 male, you should refer to that group using the masculine form.

This has given origin to many many many feminist/anti-feminist discussions but, luckily this site is only about language. :-)

As for your examples for the singular, they are exactly the same.

He who hesitates is lost = El que duda pierde

and even if you say the one who hesitates is lost the translation could be the same using the male form. The neutral alternative quien duda pierde could not be generally valid for all cases of casual conversation in the same way as in English you don't often use "the one".

Regarding your edit: I always assume "unisex context" when I hear these kinds of sentences because, one, that is my culture as a native Colombian, and two, it is the rule of the language as seen on the RAE reference.

  • I think my question wasn't clear. I've tried to fix that with an edit. Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:43

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