The Gender of Portuguese Words

Unlike English, most Portuguese words have a gender: ♂ masculine or ♀ feminine.
Sometimes you’ll notice patterns, such as the -o ending in many masculine words and the -a ending in many feminine words. There are many, many exceptions, however, so you can’t always rely on that rule. You can start by using the patterns below as a guide and then you’ll pick up the exceptions over time as you hear them in context.
The masculine form is usually considered the “default” form in Portuguese. This even applies to pronouns: we have both eles paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio they(masc.) for male groups and elas paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio they(fem) for female groups, but if it’s a group of both males and females, you have to use eles, even if there’s only one man!

eles: 👨🏻👨🏾‍🦱🧔🏼👨🏽‍🦲👨🏻‍🦰 or 👩🏻‍🦰👵🏽👱🏼‍♀️👨🏻👩🏾👩🏻‍🦱

elas: 👩🏻‍🦰👵🏽👱🏼‍♀️👩🏾👩🏻‍🦱

Variability

Because of this grammatical concept of gender, most Portuguese words are variable, which just means they change form depending on the gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural).
For example, most adjectives are variable, so they must match the gender (and number) of the noun they modify:

  • O homem é alto paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The man is tall | A mulher é alta Play normal audio The woman is tall
  • We’ll see some exceptions in the 3rd group below*

Portuguese adverbs, on the other hand, are one class that is always invariable. They only have one form, so they stay the same regardless of the gender (or number) of the noun they modify. For example:

  • Eles ainda estão aqui Play normal audio They(masc.) are still here | Elas ainda estão aqui Play normal audio They(fem.) are still here

Let’s explore more examples of how to indicate gender, by categorizing Portuguese words into the following 4 groups.

1. Same Root Word, Modified for Each Gender

This is the largest group, containing words that share a common root or radical, which is modified into a different form for each gender. A simple example is menino paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio boy and menina paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio girl. These share the same root (menin-) and the -o is changed to -a to take on the feminine form.
These include most adjectives, plus many nouns that relate to people, i.e. what we perceive to have a biological gender in the “real world”. Study the charts below to learn how different words are transformed from masculine to feminine.

  • Simply changing -o to -a
Masculine Feminine
filho paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio son filha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio daughter
primo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio cousin(male) prima paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio cousin(female)
bonito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio beautiful bonita paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio beautiful
tímido paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio shy tímida paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio shy
  • -ão turns into , -oa or -ona
Masculine Feminine
irmão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio brother irmã paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sister
alemão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio German alemã paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio German
leão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio lion leoa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio lioness
patrão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio boss(male) patroa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio boss(female)
chorão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio whiny chorona paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio whiny
  • -or turns into -iz
Masculine Feminine
ator paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio actor atriz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio actress
embaixador paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio ambassador embaixatriz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio ambassadress
imperador paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio emperor imperatriz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio empress
  • Adding an -a to words ending in -or, -ês or -z
Masculine Feminine
professorteacher(male) professora paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio teacher(female)
Senhor paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Sir Senhora paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Lady, Madam
português paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Portuguese portuguesa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Portuguese
inglês paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio English inglesa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio English
juizjudge(male) juíza paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio judge(female)
aprendiz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio apprentice(male) aprendiza paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio apprentice(female)
  • Words ending in -essa, -esa or-isa
Masculine Feminine
conde paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio count condessa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio countess
abade paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio abbot abadessa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio abbess
príncipe paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio prince princesa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio princess
duque paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio duke duquesa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio duchess
poeta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio poet(male) poetisa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio poet(female)
profeta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio prophet profetisa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio prophetess
  • and some anomalous examples
Masculine Feminine
cão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio dog(male) cadela paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio dog(female)
rapaz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio boy rapariga paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio girl
padrinho paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio godfather madrinha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio godmother
frade paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio friar freira paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio nun
ateu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio atheist ateia paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio atheist
czar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio tsar czarina paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio tsarina

2. Only One Possible Gender

Nouns called substantivos uniformes paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio unisex nouns have only one form. They already have a defined grammatical gender, which is indicated by the words that go with them (such as articles, determiners, etc.). In the example below, the definite articles a or o match the gender of the noun:

    • A porta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The door
    • O carro paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The car

Most of these words pertain to objects, i.e. things that don’t actually have a biological gender, so the gender just has to be learned. You can’t say ❌ O porta or ❌ A carro, for example. In Portuguese, a door will always be feminine and a car will always be masculine. But like we said, even though it’s much more common, it’s not always as simple as adding an o for words ending in o and an a for words ending in a.

    • A tribo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The tribe – An example of a feminine word that ends in -o
    • O pijama paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The pajamas – An example of a masculine word that ends in -a

3. Same Form, Two Possible Genders

Nouns in this group can be masculine or feminine, but the same form is used for both genders. The words that go with them (such as articles) are the only way to indicate whether you’re referring to a male or female. Most nouns that end in -e or -ista belong to this group, and many are related to occupations, but not all.
This group contains adjectives as well. Most adjectives are variable, however, the adjectives in this group are the exceptions. They are called adjetivos uniformes paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio unisex adjectives and they do not change form (they are invariable* when it comes to gender, but not number). Usually, the ones ending in -a, -e, -l, -ar, –or, -s, -z and -m fit in this category, but not all.
Here are some examples:

  • Nouns:
    • O chefe, A chefe paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The boss
    • O presidente, A presidente paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The president
    • O terapeuta, A terapeuta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The therapist
    • O refém, A refém paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The hostage
    • O artista, A artista Play normal audio The artist
    • O nutricionista, A nutricionista Play normal audio The nutritionist
  • Adjectives:
    • feliz paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio happyO homem está feliz Play normal audio The man is happy | A mulher está feliz Play normal audio The woman is happy | Eles estão felizes Play normal audio They are happy
    • triste paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sad
    • contente paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio happy
    • inteligente paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio intelligent
    • homicida paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio homicidal
    • doce paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sweet
    • ágil paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio agile
    • exemplar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio exemplary
    • comum paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio common

4. Two Completely Different Words

This group contains words whose forms have no common root between them. The masculine and feminine forms are two completely different words.

Masculine Feminine
homem paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio man mulher paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio woman
pai paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio father mãe paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio mother
cavalo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio horse égua paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio mare
boi Play normal audio bull vaca paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio cow
cavalheiro paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio gentleman dama paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio lady
zangão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio drone abelha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bee

Comments

  • Wow I like practice Portuguese with you, it’s a difficult language, but with you, I am confident one day I will get there
    Thank you guys

    • Thank you Brigitte! That’s very nice of you to say. You’re right: little by little, you’ll get there!

  • This is brilliant – I have one very basic/perhaps obvious question but would a woman say muita obrigada instead of muito?

    • Thanks for your comment, Lena! A woman should always say ‘Muito obrigada’, because ‘muito’ is an adverb here, so it’s invariable. It’s like ‘very’ in “Thank you very much”.

  • My girlfriend is a language teacher from Brazil teaching me Portuguese, this is the exact thing she is telling me. Very cool thanks.

  • This is a very interesting matter, but you should fix the group “Words with two completely different forms”. Actually, the feminin of “marido (husband)” is “mulher (wife)”, and not “esposa (spouse)”. Please note that “esposo” and “esposa” form a pair of “words with two forms and the same root” that mean “spouse”.

    • Good point! You’re right mulher (wife) is used much more often than esposa (fem. spouse) and that esposo would be the male counterpart to esposa. I’ll remove that example since it’s a bit misleading.

  • What do I think. Its difficult. My parents are Portuguese, so i do speak it but they have been in Canada for over 50 years and they speak more English then Portuguese when we are all around. I find since I am not involved in conversational Portuguese that my Portuguese is becoming worse. I read the above but trying to remember some of the words that i would never use in a conversation is challenging. When I speak to my relatives in Lisbon it all sounds great in my head but I fumble over the words I am trying to say. I get frustrated and then I dont have a conversation with them. I keep it short because I am embarressed. I hope that as I go through these lessons I will become more comfortable and will remember some of the grammar. Hope to become more confidant. 🙂

    • Hang in there! It can be overwhelming because there is so much to learn, but over time it will get easier little by little. You’ll make lots of mistakes in conversation, but that’s the only way to get better – to learn from your mistakes and keep pushing through. Maybe start by talking to yourself out loud more at home to help make you feel more comfortable speaking.

  • Nice clarifications. What about words ending in “ista?” Can they take either article depending on the gender of the speaker? O abolicionista? A abolicionista? Please and thank you. 🙂

    • Yes, Michael, most nouns ending in -ista are invariable in gender themselves, but the preceding article changes accordingly (just added them to the group of “Words with only one form, but two genders” – thanks!).
      – O abolicionista/a abolicionista (big word!) (abolitionist)
      – O artista/a artista (artist)
      – O turista/a turista (tourist)
      – O solista/a solista (soloist)

      Some nouns are always feminine:
      – A pista (clue)
      – A revista (magazine)
      – A lista (list)

      But some adjectives may have both forms, ending in -ista or -isto as needed:
      – Misto/mista (mixed)
      – Visto/vista (seen) and its direct derivatives (revisto/revista – reviewed; previsto/prevista – foreseen; imprevisto/imprevista – unforeseen; antevisto/antevista – previewed)

  • Thank you so much for replying to my inquiry. I suspected as much, but couldn’t find a confitmation anywhere. Thanks again.

What Did You Think? Leave Us a Comment Below:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The subject is used only for admin purposes and won't be displayed in your comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.