English

Is there any rule that says that feminine nouns that start with "A" are converted to masculine or is it just done for phonetic (ie beauty) reasons?

Does this happen in all Spanish speaking countries?


Spanish

¿Hay alguna regla que diga que los sustantivos femeninos que empiecen con "A" son convertidos a masculino, o solo se hace por motivos fonéticos o por belleza?

  • 3
    Same happens with "el arte" / "las artes". – dusan Nov 15 '11 at 21:30
  • 2
    Also happens with "el aguila" "las aguilas" – David Grajal Nov 17 '11 at 19:28
  • 2
    Well "el águila" "las águilas". The stressed á is the key that unlocks the article. – hippietrail Nov 18 '11 at 8:18
  • 2
    I want to stress: those feminine nouns are NOT converted to masculine; the rule is to use the masculine article, but the noun is still feminine (see Flimzy's answer). – leonbloy Jul 22 '13 at 15:26
  • 1
    @guifa Según DRAE, arte es de género ambiguo en el sentido de que hay casos en que se usa como palabra femenina y otros en que es masculina. Fíjate en las bellas artes, por ejemplo, un caso donde — a mi parecer — la forma femenina es obligatoria. Sin embargo, yo diría el arte nuevo o el arte moderno sin pensar, pero no sé la regla operativa aquí, ni en mi mente ni en la realidad. :) – tchrist Jul 24 '15 at 3:30
up vote 75 down vote accepted

"Agua" is feminine, but starts with a stressed "a". So it needs the article to change, for a phonetic reason.

The plural "las aguas" highlights that "agua" is feminine.

The accent on the starting "a" is interesting. Look at the feminine "almohada". The accent is on the second "a", not on the starting one, so the article remains "la".

As pointed out by Flimzy in his answer, this behaviour happens only with words starting with "a" (accented), because they clash with "la". See instead "la isla", "la épica", "la obra", "la uña".

See also: El agua, esta agua, mucha agua, by RAE.

  • 7
    There are two exceptions I know of offhand where the "la" is retained: "la a" and "la hache". Both are letters of the alphabet. – Kef Schecter Nov 15 '11 at 22:43
  • 3
    @KefSchecter, what you say about "hache" is quite similar to what happens with most words that begin with "h". For example: while you use "e" instead of "y" before a noun starting with i ("alemán e inglés"), you use "y" before a noun starting with "hi" ("agua y hielo"). Not sure why or how official, but that's how we do it :-) – rsuarez Nov 16 '11 at 12:58
  • 3
    @rsuarez, but you say "aguja e hilo". Maybe it's because "hielo" has a "ie" diphthong? – dusan Nov 16 '11 at 16:47
  • 5
    Just a little comment: That's the reason I don't like RAE, sorry for say it. The real derivation of the "la" is not "ille", is "illa". The real reason for the article "la" in masculine words that begin with 'a' is not for fonetic reason. The migration of this case from latin-middle spanish era-spanish is: Illa acqua - Il-acqua - El agua. "Il" was the preform of "El" (In latin, ille). Actually, so, this "el" in "el agua" has a "femenine nature" :D This happens because is a normal process of the evolution of a language: one "a" instead two. – Leandro Tupone Jun 3 '12 at 18:45
  • 2
    And when I say "is not for fonetic reason" that really I want to mean is: we don't change "la" for "el" because it's sound better, is just because there was a fonetic migration between latin and spanish. Because we don't have contractions as italian, french, etc. We don't use "L' agua". There are only two contractions on spanish: "de+el=del" and "a+el=al" – Leandro Tupone Jun 3 '12 at 18:50

Agua is always feminine, even in singular form. However, to avoid the double 'a' sound in la agua, we use the article el in singular form. In all other respects, agua is still feminine when singular.

For instance, when adding an adjective, you use the feminine form:

the red water => el agua roja

The same is true for other feminine nouns that begin with a stressed 'a'.

  • 6
    Note that it’s el agua pura but la pura agua. This is just something that happens. It’s because of the articles that came from the Latin demonstratives, ille/illa. It’s like saying an apple but a big apple in English. I really think you should explain the history of how this came to be, but perhaps this is not the right place for that? Seems like it would be. – tchrist May 14 '12 at 3:49
  • 1
    ... with the funny exception: "la a" (i.e.: "la letra a") – leonbloy Jan 10 '13 at 3:21
  • @leonbloy It’s not an exception: letter-names in Spanish are always feminine, because as you observed, the tacit letra seeming key here. Letter-names are also feminine in Catalan, but not in Portuguese where they are masculine. – tchrist Feb 2 '15 at 9:05
  • Would it still be correct to say "la agua"? It seems like I have heard both "el agua" and "la agua" used. – Wake Aug 17 '16 at 19:18
  • @Wake - It's possible you've heard "la agua" on a rare occasion, I can't say because I wasn't there; but it's not correct. – aparente001 Jul 4 at 1:04

Actually it's not a gender reversal but a tradition that survives (inherited from Latin).

The complete rules are intrincate and arbitrary, kind of "well that sounds good to me", full of exceptions and even exceptions to the exceptions (see the variable use with toponyms or the "árbitra" or "árabe" cases). It is used with common names ("El ágata es una piedra preciosa") but not with proper nouns ("Ella ya no es la Ágata que conocí").

It has nothing to do with cacophony. Note:

  • El águila ávida se lanzó sobre la presa.
  • La ávida águila se lanzó sobre la presa.

Is it more cacophonic the first than the second word just because one is a noun and the other is an adjective? Oh, we all forgot to say that the article change must be used with nouns but not with adjectives.

It's sometimes said that this way it's easier to pronounce. What about this?

—¿Qué es ese papel?
—El alta.

—¿Cuál es tu hija?
—La alta.

You will see that you can pronounce both sentences without being damaged (at least permanently).

Ask me and I will answer "let it disappear". At least, the academicians might let it be optional. I think it's good for nothing more than confusing people to make them say:

  • Nunca digas «de estaeste agua no beberé».
  • A buenabuen hambre no hay pan duro.
  • La nuevaEl nuevo aula es más grande.

It should be:

  • Nunca digas «de esta agua no beberé».
  • A buena hambre no hay pan duro.
  • La nueva aula es más grande.
  • The first half of the answer is very interesting however the "este agua" and "nuevo aula" examples at the end sound wrong to me and make this answer confusing. In the DPD reference on paragraph 2.1 it is clear that "aula" is feminine, is noun and starts with stressed 'a' so you should say "el aula" however being feminine you should say "la nueva aula". Also you can find at the "Instituto Cervantes" site a reference to "de esta agua no beberé I don't think is right to leave that part there. – DGaleano Jul 4 '16 at 14:19
  • 2
    The asterisk means it's incorrect. Sorry, I did not make it clear. That's the point: this outdated (it's latin) and nonsensical (incoherent) rule makes people say things like those (I've heard them all). That's because they end thinking that words like agua, hambre or aula are masculine. – cdlvcdlv Jul 4 '16 at 16:35
  • So the problem is that the first and last are wrong (correctly marker) but second is right (incorrectly marked) because it is right to say a buen hambre no hay pan duro – DGaleano Jul 4 '16 at 16:47
  • 2
    No, it's not: "pero los adjetivos deben ir en forma femenina". Note that "buen" is an adjective and it should be "buena". The change before the noun is mandatory with "la" or "una" and optative with "alguna" or "ninguna" but it never concerns adjectives. Thanks for the link. It proves that the rule it's so toxic that it confuses even people in the CVC! – cdlvcdlv Jul 4 '16 at 16:56
  • 1
    Follow the link I provided at the beginning of my answer and you'll find that is one of the exceptions. Maybe because "Haya" it's a proper noun here, just like in my example "la Ágata". – cdlvcdlv Dec 29 '17 at 12:06

Remember that this is also used for words starting with h followed by an a: 'El hada madrina / Las hadas madrinas'.
The idea as many others have said is to avoid two consecutive a that are (somehow) hard to pronounce and produce a what is called "cacofonía".

Another important issue (a commonly forgotten one) is that the genre of the word does not mean that the designated object has that same genre. This causes discussion as if the correct way is "el abogado", "la abogado" or "la abogada".

0. The rule

If a feminine word begins with a stressed /a/ sound, some singular articles/determiners:

  • la, una, alguna, ninguna, buena, mala, primera, tercera

take a masculine form:

  • el, un, algún, ningún, buen, mal, primer, tercer

if they occur directly before the noun.


1. i) Affected nouns

a. Words with stressed initial /a/:

  • Asia, acta, agua, ala, alga, alma, alza, ama, ancla, anda, ansa, ansia, ara, arca, arda, aria, arma, arpa, arria, asa, ascua, asna, aspa, asta, aula, aura, aya, ave, arte (m/f)
  • África, ácana, áfaca, ágata, ágora, águila, álaga, álala, álgebra, álica, álula, ámpula, áncora, ánfora, ánima, árdea, área, árgana, árgoma, árnica, árula, áspera, ática
  • haba, habla, haca, hacha, hada, halda, hampa, harca, harda, harma, harpa, harria, haya, haza, hambre, haz
  • hálara

b. Exceptions:

  • Letters: la a, la hache, la alfa, el/la álef
  • Acronyms: la ASA, la APA etc
  • Proper names: la Ana, la Ángela, la Austria, la Ávila, la Ámsterdam, la Haya etc
    • Exception to exception: Continents: el Asia, el África
  • Nominalized adjectives: la alta, la árida etc
  • (Some) fem. nouns with fem. referents: la árbitra
  • Common gender nouns with fem. referents: la árabe, la ácrata, la alto (singer)

1. ii) Affected articles/determiners

The rule for which articles/determiners take 'masculine' forms with this class of words appears to be:

  • if the apocopated form of the feminine word is identical to the masculine word, then the masculine form is used:

    e.g. una águila → un' águila = un águila

  • if they are not identical, the feminine form is used:

    e.g. esta águila → est' águila este águila

  • exception: la → l' → el

Examples

    el águila    |      las águilas    |      la gran águila
    un águila    |     unas águilas    |     una gran águila
 algún águila    |  algunas águilas    |  alguna gran águila
ningún águila    | ningunas águilas    | ninguna gran águila
  buen águila    |   buenas águilas    |   buena gran águila
   mal águila    |    malas águilas    |    mala gran águila
primer águila    | primeras águilas    |  primer gran águila
tercer águila    | terceras águilas    |  tercer gran águila
-----------------|---------------------|--------------------
esa águila       | esas águilas        |  esa gran águila
esta ...         | estas ...           | esta gran ...
aquesta ...      | aquestas ...        | ...
aquella ...      | aquellas ...        | ...
nuestra ...      | nuestras ...        | ...
vuestra ...      | vuestras ...        | ...
otra ...         | otras ...           | ...
poca ...         | pocas ...           | ...
toda ...         | todas ...           | ...
misma ...        | mismas ...          | ...
mucha ...        | muchas ...          | ...
tanta ...        | tantas ...          | ...
cierta ...       | ciertas ...         | ...
demasiada ...    | demasiadas ...      | ...
cada ...         |                     | ...
                 | varias ...          |
                 | sendas ...          |
                 | ambas ...           |


2. Descriptive: how native speakers treat agua-like nouns

As the comments on cdlvcdlv's answer show, among native speakers there is a tendency (despite the RAE's prescriptions) to treat words like agua as 'hermaphroditic' - postnomial modifiers are consistently treated as feminine, but prenomial modifiers show considerable fluctuation in gender.

This treatment of agua-like words isn't limited to casual speech, but is also found in educated speakers and formal/academic writing:

¿Con qué derecho se la toma por aquelm asa y no por éstaf?

  • Ortega y Gasset, 1983

... los desperfectos que elm abundante agua caídaf provocó en las vías...

  • Vuelve, 2007

... nuestrom habla riojanaf actual...

  • Martínez Sáenz de Jubera y González Perujo, 1998

enter image description here

The hypothesized reasoning for native speakers internalizing this hermaphroditic treatment of agua-like words is the learning of tokens such as el agua and agua fría (recognising el as a masculine article and not an allomorph of la) and analogy to other such words.

  • I think the rule is wrong, at least with primer and tercer (I remember reading it was a mistake, common in some places, particularly Argentina), but I'd be really glad to know it was not the case. Could you provide an authoritative reference saying so? – Rafael Aug 15 at 0:09
  • 1
    @Rafael it may well not be what the RAE suggests (all I can find from the RAE atm is general info that in centuries past primera and tercera were apocopated before all feminine nouns, but it's not recommended now). I just extrapolated from what I assumed to be their logic for the other articles/determiners. I will look at the Nueva Gramática (section 14.2) later and check. – ukemi Aug 15 at 0:28

English

'Agua' is feminine by definition (as RAE explains in El agua, esta agua, mucha agua). The article 'el' is used to avoid stressing of two consecutive identical letters (note that this doesn't happen with all nouns that begin with 'a'). And yes, in this case all Spanish-speaking countries do change the article 'la' for 'el' for the previous reason.

Español

'Agua' es femenino por definición (como la RAE explica en El agua, esta agua, mucha agua). El articulo 'el' es usado para prevenir el arrastre de la vocal (esto no ocurre con todos los sustantivos que inician con 'a'). Y sí, en este caso todos los países hablantes del español cambian el articulo 'la' por 'el' por ese mismo motivo.


More info / Más información:

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