In Spanish, Inclusive Language Can Be at Odds With Grammar Rules


Photo taken from the Flickr account of Santi Ochoa and republished under license of Creative Commons.

All nouns in Spanish are either masculine or feminine, and according to the language's rules the masculine form trumps the feminine when describing a group of people containing members of both genders. For example, a group of female workers would be described as “trabajadoras” with the feminine plural ending of “-as”, but a group of 99 female workers and one male worker would be described as “trabajadores” with the masculine plural ending — just because of the presence of one man.

More and more Spanish speakers are moving away from this rule and toward what they consider to be more inclusive language. Instead of saying “todos” (the masculine plural form of “everyone”), they'll use “todos y todas” or even “tod@s” with the at sign symbolizing both the “a” and “o” ending in one character.

But the highest authority of the Spanish language, The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), isn't a fan. Its official stance has emphasized for years that the masculine version of the word should still reign over its female counterpart.

The website Clases de Periodismo (Journalism Classes) recently reminded readers of the institution's 2012 report, “Linguistic Sexism and the Visibility of Women”, which was written by Spanish linguist Ignacio Bosque:

El informe de la RAE critica las nuevas guías sobre lenguaje no sexista elaboradas en España por universidades, sindicatos o gobiernos regionales, que proponen, por ejemplo, usar palabras como “la ciudadanía” en lugar de “los ciudadanos” o “el profesorado” en lugar de “los profesores” para hablar de grupos compuestos por hombres y mujeres”.

Tras criticar y resaltar la nula practicidad del “desdoblamiento” genérico -como el citado “todos y todas”- para evitar la supuesta caída en el sexismo, así como el uso indebido del símbolo “@” para superponer el uso femenino de la “a” y el masculino de la “o”, el lingüista descartó la viabilidad de las recomendaciones de las guías”.

The RAE report criticizes the new guidelines on non-sexist language developed in Spain by universities, unions and regional governments that propose, for example, the use of words like “la ciudadanía” (“the citizenry”, which happens to be feminine) instead of “los ciudadanos” (masculine plural form of “the citizens”) or “el profesorado” (singular noun meaning “faculty”) instead of “los profesores” (masculine plural form of “the professors”) when speaking of groups made up of both men and women.

After criticizing and highlighting the complete impracticality of the generic “dividing” — like the aforementioned “todos y todas” — to avoid sexism, as well as the misuse of the @ symbol superimposed over the use of the “a” at the end of feminine words and over the “o” at the end of masculine words, the linguist dismissed the viability of these guidelines.

According to Bosque, “the generic use of the masculine when both sexes are present is firmly established in the grammatical system” of Spanish, and it does not make sense “to force linguistic structures”.

To use @ or not to use @

The RAE's years-old disapproval doesn't appear to have stopped Spanish speakers from changing their language. It is becoming more popular the use of both sexes in plural, especially in Latin America.

Argentinian newspaper La Nación, back in 2012, when the RAE published its stance, provided the context for the institution's decision:

A la Real Academia Española (RAE) le llamó la atención el uso creciente de un latiguillo lingüístico en América latina: un artículo de la Constitución de Venezuela habla de “venezolanos y venezolanas”, y la (ex) presidenta (de Argentina) Cristina Kirchner comienza siempre sus discursos dirigiéndose “a todos y a todas”.

La corriente “reformista” ya ha tenido varios ejemplos, además de los que brindan la Constitución venezolana y la presidenta Kirchner. El 15 de mayo del año pasado, la Puerta del Sol se vio desbordada por un movimiento de manifestantes que, para subrayar su conformación por mujeres indignadas y hombres indignados, se autodenominó “de l@s indignad@s”. Con el signo de arroba, para ser más inclusivos.

It has come to the attention of the Royal Spanish Academy the growing use of a linguistic trend in Latin America: an article on the Venezuelan Constitution speaks of “venezolanos y venezolanas” (masculine and feminine forms of “Venezuelans”), former Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner always starts her speeches addressing “a todos y a todas” (masculine and feminine forms of “to everyone”).

There are several examples of this “reformist” trend, in addition to those of the Venezuelan Constitution and President Kirchner. Last year on 15 May, the Puerta del Sol [in Madrid] was overwhelmed by a wave of protesters who called themselves “l@s indignad@s.” They used the @ sign to highlight that both outraged men and women made up the group, to be more inclusive.

While inclusive language is important, Marcela Zeledón writing on the website Enfoque Jurídico recommended avoiding the @ sign in a blog post from April 2015, as it is not linguistic and furthermore is not pronounceable.

In her article titled “The use of inclusive language. A social need?“, she defined what inclusive language means:

… el lenguaje incluyente, hace referencia a toda expresión verbal o escrita que utiliza preferentemente vocabulario neutro, o bien, hace evidente el masculino y el femenino. También evita generalizaciones del masculino para situaciones o actividades donde aparecen mujeres y hombres”.

…inclusive language refers to all types of verbal or written expressions that preferably make use of neutral vocabulary, or otherwise, makes the masculine and feminine evident. It also avoids the generalization of the use of the masculine in situations where women and men both appear.

Zeledón continued that it is not the point to simply add “os/as” to the end of all words to clarify the correct gender, but that in fact, one should utilize neutral terms and concepts that include and make every group within society visible.

According to the author, an example of this would be to “abandon the use of the term ‘man’, which has always been used universally.” For Zeledón, this practice makes the presence of children and women invisible. Therefore, the adequate way refer to both genders would be to use terms like “people”, “human beings”, “humanity” or “the human species”.

‘It is not language that determines reality’

On the site Página 12, Sandra Russo pointed out in her piece Sobre todos y todas (On ‘todos’ and ‘todas’) that the RAE's report was signed by 23 academics, of whom only three were women:

La RAE salió, una vez más, al choque de una avanzada de género promovida desde hace años por muchos colectivos feministas, que elaboran guías sobre el sexismo en el lenguaje[…] Las feministas protestan porque el sustantivo masculino incluye al femenino, y eso ya no es un detalle, ni un modo decir lo correcto, ni es una enunciación justa. Las mujeres estamos gramaticalmente incluidas en los sustantivos masculinos (trabajadores, ciudadanos, amigos, invitados, etc.: todo eso, que es de género masculino, lleva al género femenino incorporado, justo como una costilla semántica). Pero no es la lengua la que determina la realidad, es al revés.

The RAE came out once again against the advancement of gender, promoted for many years by many feminist collectives that have published guidelines on sexism in language […] Feminists protest because the masculine noun includes the feminine, and this is no longer a detail, a correct way of speaking, or a even a fair statement. Women are grammatically included in masculine nouns such as workers (trabajadores), citizens (ciudaddanos), friends (amigos), guests (invitados), etc., all of which are of the masculine gender, but incorporating the feminine gender as well, as is the case with the semantic rib. But it is not language that determines reality. The reverse is true.

She added:

Las lingüistas feministas sostienen que esa inclusión forzada de lo femenino en lo masculino es una forma de exclusión en la lengua. El estar contenidas e invisibilizadas en los sustantivos masculinos obliga a las mujeres a una pregunta que deben hacerse miles de veces en sus vidas: “¿Me están hablando a mí?”, mientras los varones jamás pasan por esa experiencia.”

Feminist linguists maintain that this forced inclusion of the feminine within the masculine is a form of exclusion from the language. Being contained and invisible within masculine nouns forces women to ask themselves the same question thousands of times throughout their lives: “Are they speaking about me?”, whilst men never experience this.

In the same way, Russo pointed out that “those groups of people who feel uncomfortable with the language are the ones modifying it, in a natural movement toward precision and specificity.”

On Twitter, however, the trend has been to support the RAE's position:

The RAE opposes “todos y todas” [masculine and feminine forms of “all”] of the constitution of #Venezuela, [former Argentinean President] Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and [Ecuador's President Rafael] Correa.

Since when was “todos y todas” [masculine and feminine forms of “all] used? Did they not read the rules of the RAE…? Furthermore it sounds ridiculous.

The RAE comes out against “todos y todas” [masculine and feminine form of “all”] “grammatical and patriarchal”


  • Margaret Nahmias

    To me it is like using he/she in English it is too much trouble. will keep using the masculine to refer to both gender

  • Martyn Davies

    Before reading Mary’s article I tended to use both “todos y todas” which I think may be more common Latin American countries such as Mexico where I lived and initially learnt Spanish. Interesting to learn about the official rules though.

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