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I am working on the translation of some strings for an app. I have encountered the following problem:

The English version has the following string: "The person uses the", which is used along with an object to form a sentence, e.g. "The person uses the rope."

I can only translate the string to form the appropriate sentence (the objects are given by users). My idea was "La persona usa la/el" as a translation in order to form for example: "La persona usa la/el cuerda", which doesn't seem like a proper solution. The problem is I don't know the gender of the object before hand, I can only put together both my string + object provided.

Is there any appropriate wording in Spanish I can use to solve my problem?

Edit:

Another possible workaround could be to translate as: "La persona usa" and then add the object as plural i.e. "La persona usa cuerdas".

This doesn't solve my problem, but I just add it to (hopefully) make it clear that my question has nothing to do with programming; I am asking about an appropriate wording in Spanish to hide the gender of an object.

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    You could translate the article with the appropriate gender with the noun: la cuerda, el cubo, etc. So instead of translating “the person uses the” translate “the person ises” + “the noun”. – Diego Jul 4 at 2:56
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    @aparente001 As a programmer myself, this has nothing to do with programming, and everything to do with gender-neutral sentences in Spanish. – walen Jul 4 at 5:42
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    Post-review advice for everybody, if I may: if it's been agreed that this question is a valid question because it is about Spanish and not about programming, then please do not make your answers about programming instead of about Spanish. Let's be coherent here. – walen Jul 4 at 11:15
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    @walen - "Nothing to do with programming"? Maybe you mean it's not just about programming. That would sound less outrageous. // To me it looks like a fundamental problem with the way the data input to the program was designed. An interesting problem, perhaps, and certainly it does show a fundamental lack of understanding of how intrinsic gender is to nouns in Spanish. But I think all we can do is make this clear to OP. Anything more than that would be programming advice. I don't think this is the right site to do that in. Maybe those interested in helping OP could make a chat room. – aparente001 Jul 4 at 12:41
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    @aparente001 Would you consider the question valid if I were translating a book instead of an app? I don't understand why this has caused so much controversy. – Daniel Duque Jul 5 at 3:09
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Your question was proposed for closing as being about programming rather than about Spanish, but I think this is a valid question:

Is there any appropriate wording in Spanish I can use to [refer to an object without specifying its grammatical gender]?

There are some ways of achieving this. Some of them will look more unnatural than others, but all are valid Spanish.

  • Use plural names.
    You already mentioned this one. I guess you did so because in English, plural names don't need an article... but that's just English. In Spanish, both singular and plural names use articles by default, so it's not like by using plural names you could get away with it. However, it may work.

    La persona usa cuerdas.
    La persona usa cubos.

  • Drop the article altogether.
    Using plurals is actually just a variation on this one. Yes, Spanish names are usually accompanied by their article to provide/confirm gender and number information, but you can drop it when not needed (literary language sometimes does this). It will come out as somewhat "robotic speech" if there's no adjective or determinant to supply that info, but it is still valid Spanish.

    La persona usa cuerda.
    La persona usa cubo.

  • Use a colon instead of an article.
    There's one place where articles are usually omitted: enumerations. By turning the sentence into a one-item enumeration, you can afford to drop the article (and thus the gender) while still sounding natural or, at least, not as unnatural as the other options. And it also works with plurals, proper names, or whatever the user wrote.

    La persona usa: cuerda.
    La persona usa: cubo.
    La persona usa: semillas.
    La persona usa: vendajes.
    La persona usa: Rust-eze™.

You probably saw the last option being used in video games. It is the most natural-sounding and the one I'd recommend.


You mention that using the plural form is not a valid solution for your specific case. I'm guessing that's because you still would need to know how to form the plural of user`. Just wanted to mention that the rules to form the plural are not that complicated, you could probably implement them if you needed to.

Of course, there are programmatic ways of getting the actual gender of a word, so you can adequately pick one of el, la, los, las instead of trying to hide them; but answering that would be off-topic.

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    To me the : solution seems the cleanest. – ukemi Jul 4 at 12:04
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Where do you get the data for the user-given nouns from? Nouns in Spanish are described by their lexical form (the word that is the noun itself in the singular) and their gender; there's also a rule the shifts the stress when forming the plurals of certain (very few) words.

Your program should have a Spanish dictionary (better yet, a noun-only dictionary), and said dictionary should contain the information about the noun's gender. That is, it cannot be just a list of valid nouns in Spanish, but also include the information found in Spanish dictionaries (where the entry for cuerda, for example, specifies it's a feminine noun).

There are, I believe, free dictionaries that you can download, parse and turn into such a list as you need. Then you need to parse what the user entered. Of course this is not that simple. The dictionary will tell you to use el for masculine nouns and la for feminine nouns. But feminine nouns beginning with a vowel will take el instead. If the user enters something ending in -s it's very likely to be a plural noun, but in that case your program will have to remove the -s and check. And so on. But for the vast majority of nouns, assigning them the correct article based on gender and number should be straightforward.

There's no appropriate nice-looking way of hiding the gender of a Spanish noun in a sentence like the one you give in your example. That is, you can produce simple sentences with nouns but no articles or adjectives and thus without gender agreement, but that's a very restricted set of possible sentences.

  • I agree with the concept. As a computer science major and wannabe philology amateur, I think the best one can do is treating nouns as objects, with a gender property and a definite() method, or even a more general parse() method with parameters to tell definiteness, gender, etc. These methods should (obviously) return a string. – Rafael Jul 4 at 13:59

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