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French language For Members

Masculine or feminine: How to get the gender of French nouns (mostly) right

The Local France
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Masculine or feminine: How to get the gender of French nouns (mostly) right
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The le, the la and the l’ugly - for anyone learning the language, French nouns can be a nightmare to master, but there is a technique that can make it simpler. Although we're not promising that there are no exceptions.

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Unlike German, which has been developed over centuries by Germans and is therefore logical, there appears to be little in the way of rhyme or reason to whether French nouns are masculine (le / un), or feminine (la / une).

Anglophones find it endlessly hilarious that words like bite (a slang term for penis) are feminine while breast and vagina are both masculine (le sein, le vagin) but French people don't really get the joke, because they don't see the grammatical masculine or feminine as having anything to do with men, women, sex or gender.

Instead, it's really more to do with the construction of the word and its spelling, which is where the '80 percent trick' comes in . . . 

Rules - what are rules?

Proof that French nouns don’t follow sensible rules comes with the fact that the noun feminism is masculine (le féminisme), and the noun masculinity is feminine (la masculinité).

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Meanwhile, hoary old guardians of the French language, the Académie française, ruled that Covid (the word) is feminine (la covid) because it’s an illness (une maladie). But dictionaries Le Larousse and Le Robert originally listed it as masculine (le covid) because it’s a virus (un virus). If the gatekeepers of French cannot agree, and if the genders of the nouns themselves don’t necessarily make complete sense, what hope is there for the rest of us?

And don’t get us started on synonyms - for example it’s une chaise (a chair - feminine) but un fauteuil (an armchair - masculine). 

The thing is, gender really does matter in the French language. The gender of a noun (whether it’s a le or la word) influences any related pronouns, adjectives and verbs … and it even completely changes the meaning of some words.

Adjectives must agree

Adjectives in French conform to the gender and the quantity of the noun - a masculine plural noun needs a masculine plural adjective. Another bit that makes sense, right?

Most follow a regular pattern - if the masculine adjective ends with the letter -c (blanc / blancs), then the feminine ending is -che (blanche / blanches). An -f ending to a masculine adjective becomes -ve in the feminine. A masculine adjective ending with -eux leads to a feminine adjective ending of -euse.

Except these...

And then there are those well-known, often-used adjectives that follow rules entirely of their own making. We give you:

Beautiful: beau, bel, belle, beaux, belles

New: nouveau, nouvel, nouvelle, nouveaux, nouvelles

Old: vieux, vieil, vieille, vieux, vieilles

You just have to learn them. Sorry.

Gender critical

Here are just a few examples of how the gender of a word changes what it is. Mi-temps (masculine) means part-time, as in part-time job; mi-temps (feminine) means halftime in sport. La physique is the science; le physique refers to someone’s body shape. La somme - when it’s not the place in northern France - is the total sum of, for example, money; le somme is a nap, or 40 winks.

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Places and animals

But there are some rules that are (almost) hard and fast.

Most place names are masculine. Except those places that end with the letter e - they are usually feminine. Apart from a few, such as...

  • le Mexique (Mexico)
  • le Bélize (Belize)
  • le Mozambique (Mozambique)
  • le Zaïre (Zaire)
  • le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)

If you’re talking about animals, the advice is to go with the sex of the animal you're discussing - unless you’re talking about, for example, a mouse (la souris, all the time) or a horse (le cheval)

Derivatives

Nouns that derive from verbs - they usually end with eur, like l’aspirateur or l’ordinateur - are masculine. 

But nouns that come from adjectives that also usually end with eur, like la largeur, are feminine.

Gender reveal

But don’t throw those French books away just yet. Before you get completely downhearted and set out to learn Spanish instead, there is a trick that means you’ll be right well over half the time.

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It’s all to do with endings. According to a study by linguists at Canada’s McGill University, the end of a French noun gives away its gender in at least 80 percent of cases.

The 80 percent trick

Treat words that end in -e or -ion as feminine … Except those that end in -age, -ege, -é, or -isme (these are endings that indicate masculine words).

The rest of them - especially those that end with a consonant - are masculine. Apart from the exceptions, obviously.

Here is that McGill list in full - and if you learn all these, the Canadians promise that you will be right 90 percent of the time. That's a better record than most actual French people,according to a 2018 study. 

Typical masculine noun endings:

  • -an, -and, -ant, -ent, -in, -int, -om, -ond, -ont, -on (but not after s/c)
  • -eau, -au, -aud, -aut, -o, -os, -ot
  • -ai, -ais, -ait, -es, -et
  • -ou, -out, -out, -oux
  • -i, -il, -it, -is, -y
  • -at, -as, -ois, -oit
  • -u, -us, -ut, -eu
  • -er, -é after c
  • -age, -ege, – ème, -ome, -aume, -isme
  • -as, -is, -os, -us, -ex
  • -it, -est
  • -al, -el, -il, -ol, -eul, -all
  • -if, -ef
  •  -ac, -ic, -oc, -uc
  • -am, -um, -en
  • -air, -er, -erf, -ert, -ar, -arc, -ars, -art, -our, -ours, -or, -ord, -ors, -ort, -ir, -oir, -eur
  • (if animate)
  • -ail, -eil, -euil, -ueil
  • -ing

Typical feminine noun endings:

  •  -aie, -oue, -eue, -ion, -te, – ée, -ie, -ue
  • -asse, -ace, -esse, -ece, -aisse, -isse/-ice, -ousse, -ance, -anse, -ence, -once
  •  -enne, -onne, -une, -ine, -aine, -eine, -erne
  • -ande, -ende, -onde, -ade, -ude, -arde, -orde
  • -euse, -ouse, -ase, -aise, -ese, -oise, -ise, -yse, -ose, -use
  •  -ache, -iche, -eche, -oche, -uche, -ouche, -anche
  • -ave, -eve, -ive
  •  -iere, -ure, -eure
  • -ette, -ete, – ête, -atte, -otte, -oute, -orte, -ante, -ente, -inte, -onte
  • -alle, -elle, -ille, -olle
  • -aille, -eille, -ouille
  • -appe, -ampe, -ombe
  • -igue

See? Simple! 

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Paul Roberts 2024/02/19 00:45
Merde: I assume this is feminine, then…. ? Faciles, non?
tony.slaughter3642 2022/11/20 16:47
Good idea for an article (about articles!) slightly let down by the statement : "while breasts and vagina are both masculine (le sein, le vagine)". Breasts (plural) are les seins and vagina is le vagin (not vagine). As a former Times journalist I am always available for remote sub-editing and checking.
jpq 2022/11/18 20:46
"If you’re talking about animals, the advice is to go with the sex of the animal you’re discussing..." With the notable exception of cats. Definitely stick to masculine on that one!
operabase.mike 2022/10/25 22:31
Alphonse Allais: Je connais un cas (très) bizarre ; c'est celui du mot « cage » qui est du masculin à la campagne et du féminin dans les villes. Ainsi l' on dit: « L'oiseau chante dans le bocage », quand ça se passe à la campagne, et: « L'oiseau chante dans une belle cage », quand c'est dans un appartement.

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