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We know that in Spanish and many other languages, nouns ending in -o are mostly masculine and nouns ending in -a are mostly feminine.

We also know that in Spanish, nouns ending in -ción, -sión, -dad, -edad, -idad, -tad, -grafía, -itud, -tumbre, and -dumbre are feminine.

We also know some exceptions to the -a rule: many nouns ending in -ema, -grama, and -oma are masculine.

There are other words ending in -a like "día" (day) and "mapa" (map) which are masculine. The words "foto"(short for "fotografía) and "mano" (hand) end in -o feminine. There are other words ending in -o, which are short forms of feminine nouns, and are still feminine.

But, how do we know the gender of nouns with arbitrary endings?

For example,

"The bus travels in the capital city." translates to "El autobús viaja en la ciudad capital."

So, how do we know that "autobús" is masculine and "capital" is feminine?

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    If anything, we could say that we know that país is masculine because every time it appears with an article, a demonstrative or an adjective, these are masculine. We learn the gender of words by listening to them in context, next to other words which have their gender marked consistently. – pablodf76 May 25 at 17:48
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    I would not trust that rule, @Leo. There are too many exceptions to be of any use. For instance, capital can also be masculine when it refers to an amount of money. – Gorpik May 27 at 15:04
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    @Gorpik Out of curiosity I ran some statistics to test the rule. In the dictionary I use, there are 2170 nouns which do not end in vowel and whose last vowel is an "a" or an "o". Of those, 1780 follow the rule, that is 82%. If we remove from this subset the nouns ending in "al", which are mostly masculine (exceptions: catedral, editorial, and a few other) then the results are 1760 nouns which follow the rule out of 1975, that is 89.1%. (Of those which do not follow the rule, many are compound nouns, such as "sacamuelas", "parabrisas", "apagavelas", ...). I think that 89% is a very good rate. – Leo May 27 at 21:29
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    @Leo 215 exceptions to that rule are too many for me, but I guess we just view it differently. – Gorpik May 28 at 7:24
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    @Gorpik There are 142 exceptions to the rule that a word ending in "a" is female (carcinoma, tema, programa, califa, planeta, tranvía...) and yet it's considered a good rule. As you said, we view it differently. I just hope that someone will find it useful. – Leo May 28 at 7:37
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We know because we learned it that way. Word endings are good heuristics most of the time but, in order to be able to use a word, its gender is as important as its spelling.

In the case of capital, different meanings of the word have different genders. Capital as in capital city is feminine:

adj. Dicho de una población: Principal y cabeza de un Estado, provincia o distrito. U. m. c. s. f.

But capital as in money is masculine:

m. Econ. Conjunto de activos y bienes económicos destinados a producir mayor riqueza.

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  • Further, there are 16 words which can be both male and female depending on the meaning: capital, coma, cometa, corte, cura, cámara, cólera,.. – Leo May 28 at 9:12
  • My favorite example of this is "El Papa/La Papa", and that when the Pope visited Florida one time, some guy printed up some T-shirts with (you guessed it) "La Papa" instead of "El Papa" – Peter M 1 hour ago
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The previous answers exemplify various criteria for noun class or "gender" assignment. In Spanish these are are usually 1)phonological, as in the -a/non -a distinction in Spanish noun terminations referred to by Leo, which, in Spanish, is the most general; 2)morphological, especially useful in highly inflected languages like Latin, but evident in Spanish in the agreement of modifiers and articles, as pablodf points out; and 3)semantic, which assigns a vestigial noun class distinction in English, by sex, (almost exclusively) to animate beings, similar to Spanish and most Romance and Indo-European languages, and others. More elaborate noun class structures in other languages (e.g. Swahili) use additional semantic distinctions. It may seem random or arbitrary, but Spanish noun class assignment is systematic.

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