San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Gender Jumble: A tormenta of tormento

Kate Galante

Have you ever found yourself in the embarrassing situation of asking a bewildered waiter for the cuento? Or perhaps you have tried to buy a barro de chocolate, or you have pulled into a gas station to say that you have a llanto flojo? If so, your Spanish is still floundering in the gender jumble.

I know what a problem gender can be for English speakers. The idea that every noun is, so to speak, either a boy or a girl confounds us. What’s more, there are all these vexing words that change meaning when they change gender: words like cuento (story) and cuenta (bill, account), barro (mud) and barra (bar), llanto (cry) and llanta (tire).

You must acknowledge, however, they can be handy. For example, you don’t have to learn two different words for naturally male and female items like niño and niña. Besides, it’s helpful to remember that, with few exceptions, fruit trees are masculine (el manzano, apple tree) and their fruit is feminine (la manzana, apple).

But, let’s face it: Words that are so much alike can really get in the way. I still hesitate a moment before deciding whether to use punto or punta.

The following are examples of such pairs of nouns. (To avoid further confusion, I have included only those that end in “o” or “a”). Sometimes their meanings are related; other times, not at all.


el acto – act (refers to both an action and a theater act)

el acta – record, certificate affidavit (note that in Spanish a singular feminine noun that begins in a stressed “a” takes el instead of la for an article, in order to avoid the collision of a’s)


el alto – height, elevation

el alta – discharge (of patients), entry (to the military or a profession)


el anillo – ring (as for a finger)

la anilla – curtain ring


el arco – arch

el arca – chest, ark


el bando – edict, proclamation

la banda – band (as in strip), troop, gang, musical band


el bolo – bowling pin

la bola – ball


el bolso – purse

la bolsa – bag, sack, pocket


el brazo – arm (of a person or chair)

la braza – breaststroke, fathom


el caño– ditch or pipe for draining water

la caña – reed, cane


el capo – hood (of a car)

la capa – cape, cloak, coating (of paint, etc.), layer


el caso – case

la casa – house


el codo – elbow

la coda – musical term, carpenter’s wedge


el copo – flake, snowflake, tuft, clot, curd

la copa – cup, goblet, wineglass


el coso – bullfighting arena

la cosa – thing


el cero – zero

la cera – wax


el cuadro – square, picture, painting

la cuadra – city block


el cubierto – table setting, silverware

la cubierta – cover, wrapping, pretext


el derecho – law (the institution of), right (as in human rights)

la derecha – right (as in “to turn to the right”)


el fallo – ruling, judgment, lapse, error

la falla – fault, defect


el filo – cutting edge, hunger (slang)

la fila – line (as in “to wait in line”), row


el labio – lip, rim 

la labia – eloquence, verbal fluency


el libro – book

la libra – pound (of weight)


el mallo – mallet, maul

la malla – mesh, netting


el manto – cloak, mantle

la manta – blanket, shawl, poncho, shroud


el marco – frame

la marca – brand, trademark, make, mark


el palo – pole, tree

la pala – shovel


el partido – party (as in a political party), game or match (as in a football game)

la partida – departure


el pasto – pasture, pasture grass, feed, fodder

la pasta – dough, pasta, paste


el pelo – hair, whisker

la pela – peeling, stripping, beating


el peso – weight, importance

la pesa – dumbbell, weight


el plato – plate

la plata – money, silver


el pozo – pool, well

la poza – swimming hole in a river


el puerto – port 

la puerta – door


el punto – dot, period, moment, matter, small hole, stitch 

la punta – sharpened point, tip, top, point of land


el rato – short time, while

la rata – rat


el rayo – ray, beam, thunderbolt, flash of lightening, flash of pain

la raya – stripe, line, scratch, crease, limit


el reino – kingdom

la reina – queen


el ruedo – turn, rotation, edge, border, hem

la rueda – wheel


el rumbo – direction, course

la rumba – rumba (the dance)


el suelo – land, ground, soil, territory

la suela – sole (of a shoe), tanned leather


el tallo – (botanical) stalk, stem, sprout, shoot 

la talla – stature, height, size (of clothing), wood carving, reward


el tiro – throw, shooting, shot

la tira – strip (of paper, etc.)


el tramo – section, stretch of land 

la trama – plot (of a story), scheme


el tormento – torture, torment, anguish

la tormenta – storm, turmoil


el velo – veil, mask

la vela – vigil, watch, night shift, sleeplessness, sail (of a boat), sailboat, candle.

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