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 Play slow audio Play normal audio they(masc.) for male groups and elas 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 👩🏻🦰👵🏽👱🏼♀️👨🏻👩🏾👩🏻🦱
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 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 Play slow audio Play normal audio boy and menina 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
- -ão turns into -ã, -oa or -ona
- -or turns into -iz
- Adding an -a to words ending in -or, -ês or -z
- Words ending in -essa, -esa or-isa
- and some anomalous examples
2. Only One Possible Gender
Nouns called substantivos uniformes 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:
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.
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 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:
- O chefe, A chefe Play slow audio Play normal audio The boss
- O presidente, A presidente Play slow audio Play normal audio The president
- O terapeuta, A terapeuta Play slow audio Play normal audio The therapist
- O refém, A refém 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
- feliz Play slow audio Play normal audio happy — O 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 Play slow audio Play normal audio sad
- contente Play slow audio Play normal audio happy
- inteligente Play slow audio Play normal audio intelligent
- homicida Play slow audio Play normal audio homicidal
- doce Play slow audio Play normal audio sweet
- ágil Play slow audio Play normal audio agile
- exemplar Play slow audio Play normal audio exemplary
- comum 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.