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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?


¿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?

  • 4
    Same happens with "el arte" / "las artes".
    – dusan
    Nov 15, 2011 at 21:30
  • 2
    Also happens with "el aguila" "las aguilas" Nov 17, 2011 at 19:28
  • 2
    Well "el águila" "las águilas". The stressed á is the key that unlocks the article. Nov 18, 2011 at 8:18
  • 5
    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, 2013 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, 2015 at 3:30

6 Answers 6


The noun "agua" is feminine (as you can see in the plural form "las aguas"), but starts with a stressed "a". In this case, the preceding article must change for phonetic reasons: la -> el and una -> un.

The same happens with nouns which start with a stressed "ha" (ex: "el hacha"), but not with nouns which start with other vowels (ex: "la isla", "la épica", "la obra", "la uña").

The stress on the starting syllable is fundamental. In the feminine noun "la almohada", the stress is on the second "a", not on the starting one, so the article remains "la". Same for "la harina", whose stress is on the second syllable.

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

  • 10
    There are two exceptions I know of offhand where the "la" is retained: "la a" and "la hache". Both are letters of the alphabet. Nov 15, 2011 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, 2011 at 12:58
  • 3
    @rsuarez, but you say "aguja e hilo". Maybe it's because "hielo" has a "ie" diphthong?
    – dusan
    Nov 16, 2011 at 16:47
  • 6
    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. Jun 3, 2012 at 18:45
  • 3
    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" Jun 3, 2012 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'.

  • 10
    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, 2012 at 3:49
  • 2
    ... with the funny exception: "la a" (i.e.: "la letra a")
    – leonbloy
    Jan 10, 2013 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, 2015 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, 2016 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. Jul 4, 2018 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2017 at 12:06

The rule

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

  • la, una, alguna, ninguna

take a masculine form if they occur directly before the noun:

  • el, un, algún, ningún

Nominally this affects all words with stressed initial /a/:

Prefix Examples
"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)
"á-" África, ácana, áfaca, ágata, ágora, águila, álaga, álala, álgebra, álica, álula, ámpula, áncora, ánfora, ánima, árdea, área, árgana, árgoma, árnica, árula, áspera, ática
"ha-" haba, habla, haca, hacha, hada, halda, hampa, harca, harda, harma, harpa, harria, haya, haza, hambre, haz
"há-" hálara

With the following exceptions:

Exceptions Examples
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

Continents: el Asia, el África
Nominalized adjectives la alta, la árida etc
(Some) fem. nouns
with fem. subjects
la árbitra
Common gender nouns
with fem. subjects
la árabe, la ácrata, la alto (singer)

In practice: a bit more complicated

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

The first thing to note is that variation in gender agreement with nouns of this class generally affects determiners and adjectives preceding, but usually not following, the noun. For example, a search of 20th century texts in Corpus del español (Davies n.d.) returns examples such as mismo agua 'same water', propio agua 'own water', mucho agua 'a lot of water', but no examples where a postposed adjective with agua is masculine. Counting both 19th and 20th century examples there are three tokens of buen alma ‘good soul’ in the corpus versus two of buena alma, whereas no tokens are found of alma bueno in comparison to 17 for alma buena. That is, for some speakers some of these nouns variably condition one type of gender agreement with prenominal modifiers and the other type with postnominal modifiers.

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.


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 gender of the word does not mean that the designated object has that same gender. This causes discussion as if the correct way is "el abogado", "la abogado" or "la abogada".



'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.


'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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