French has two genders, feminine and masculine. These are used not only for people, but for objects, such as tables, chairs, pens, and paper, as well as more abstract ideas, such as honesty, exuberance, and courage. Any noun will have a gender and the adjectives and determiners that modify these nouns will have to agree with them, meaning that adjectives and determiners also have gender.
This may seem like a lot for language learners who speak languages that don’t use gender for things, or even for referring to people in the third person. English, for example, does not attribute gender to tables and chairs, but does use the personal pronouns “she” and “he” to refer to people.
French grammar behaves the way it does because it evolved from Latin, which also attributes gender to objects and ideas as well as people. There is, in fact, a third gender in Latin, which is neuter, so we can be glad to only have to learn two genders in French!
Even if you are familiar with other Romance languages which, having also developed from Latin, do use gender for things, you might find that remembering the gender of French words is a bit more difficult, since the endings don’t always give enough clues.
Looking at the Italian language, we find a high percentage of feminine words ending in “a” when singular and “e” when plural, and a high percentage of masculine words ending in “o” when singular and “i” when plural: la ragazza, le ragazze; la donna, le donne; la farfalla, le farfalle and il bambino, i bambini; l’uomo, gli uomini; l’uccello, gli uccelli are some examples.
There are other cases that are not uncommon, such as masculine singular words ending in “e” (as with il mare), but there is more consistency in the endings of gender in Italian than in French; la chaise, la fin, la main, la radio, la clef (clé in its modern spelling), l’idée, l’atmosphère, and la tribu are all feminine while le tableau, le début, le pied, l’écran, l’amour, le café, le climat, and le sentiment are all masculine (luckily the plural form of the definite articles used for all of these words is “les”).
What kinds of patterns can we draw out of this variety of endings to help us remember which words are feminine and which words are masculine?
Here are some things to remember when approaching gender in French:
When referring to people, the words will take on the gender of the person they refer to, e.g., la fille, la reine, la cousine, la sœur; le garçon, le roi, le cousin, le frère (compare this to the German word das Mädchen, a neuter word for “girl”).
There is a large group of nouns and adjectives whose feminine and masculine forms are distinguished by the presence or absence of a final “e”, e.g., cousine as opposed to cousin, as we see above, or amie as opposed to ami, and with adjectives that also reflect this pattern, une grande amie, un grand ami.
Sometimes the final consonants of a masculine word are doubled before the “e” is added to form the feminine version, resulting in a denasalized vowel sound preceding a final consonant sound: un plat italien, une recette italienne.
Nationalities tend to follow the patterns we’ve just described:
|allemand → allemande|
|australien → australienne|
|brésilien → brésilienne|
|chinois → chinoise|
|coréen → coréenne|
|espagnol → espagnole|
|français → française|
|haïtien → haïtienne|
|italien → italienne|
|marocain → marocaine|
|sénégalais → sénégalaise|
- There are feminine words with endings that incorporate more changes from the masculine form before the addition of the final e. Here are some common examples:
|eux → euse||heureux → heureuse|
|oux → ouse||époux → épouse|
|eur → euse||chanteur → chanteuse|
|teur → trice||acteur → actrice|
|deur → drice||ambassadeur → ambassadrice|
|er → ère||cher → chère|
|f → ve||neuf → neuve|
Knowing these endings will help when you come across new words:
Scenario #1: You are pleased with the general feel of a restaurant you have just walked into and remark that “L’atmosphère du restaurant est ... ?” (Since we recognize the “ère” ending as feminine, we can describe the atmosphere of the restaurant as “bonne”, “vivante”, “chaleureuse” – all adjectives with feminine endings we recognize.
Scenario #2: Dessert at the restaurant includes a fruit plate and you comment that “L’abricot est ... ?” (We recognize a vowel + t ending which looks like a masculine form of the combinations we have seen above, so good choices for describing the apricot in this phrase would be the masculine words “délicieux”, “bon”, or “cher”.)
There are, however, feminine words that might look masculine – why is this? Perhaps because they end with consonants in their written form that signal nasalized vowel sounds, as with the word “maison”. Or perhaps because there is an -e at the end of the word, as with the word “courage”.
The -age ending is actually a masculine ending in French. Here are some endings that tend to be of a specific gender:
Remember that “eau” by itself is feminine. Think of the “eau gazeuse” labels you see on sparkling water.
There are always exceptions in French, as there are in any language, so the trick is to remember patterns that are 80 or 90% accurate, in addition to memorizing the gender of words.
What helps us memorize French grammar rules like gender? Memorizing units of language places words in context and gives models for language, so instead of memorizing lists of specific words, try memorizing words along with other words that indicate gender such as:
Articles – indefinite singular articles work best, as they don’t contract with words beginning with vowels that may follow them – remembering “une abeille” will indicate gender more than “l’abeille”, since the l’ will work the same for feminine and masculine nouns.
Adjectives – remember nouns along with any adjective that modifies them, such as “eau gazeuse” from above, or “grand amour” – these are common phrases that people tend to use often and the repetition will reinforce initial efforts to memorize the word.
Another thing to remember is that loan words, words adopted from foreign languages with little to no modification, tend to be masculine, as with le bonzaï, le kébab, and even le yoga, a word that might appear feminine to learners who are already familiar with Italian and Spanish, languages that have many feminine words ending in the letter a. (Note that even in Italian and Spanish, the word “yoga” is masculine.)
It may help to think of the masculine gender in French as a more general way to designate things, whereas the feminine gender is more specific. Remember how many women together can be described as “amusantes” (the feminine plural form of the word for “fun” or “amusing”) whereas if men were to join them, they would, as a mixed crowd, be described as “amusants”? Using the masculine gender for loan words can also be seen as a way to refer to things that are part of a larger context, a context that includes more than what came out of French-speaking regions of the world.
The general terms used for professions are also traditionally masculine, although there has been some shifting to reflect the changing demographics of the workforce. Many occupations were traditionally held by men, which is reflected by the terms used to designate them, such as le professeur, l’ambassadeur, le médecin, le président, le soldat, and l’ingénieur.
We can still use the masculine forms to refer to both women and men, although now that many women hold these positions, the language is also changing to reflect this. Some words that are masculine lend themselves easily to feminine forms. Président is quite easy to “feminize” by simply adding an “e”, giving you Mme la Présidente. Others might have initially looked a bit strange, but are widely used now: la professeure, l’ingénieure, la factrice, la clerque.
Still others run into more complex issues, such as médecin, since adding an e, which would occur with similarly constructed words (capucin, capucine), would result in médecine, which refers to the domain of study rather than those individuals who practice medicine, e.g., “J’étudie la médecine pour devenir médecin”. In this case, you can either use the default masculine form or else use the feminine article before the masculine word, e.g., “Le médecin avec qui j’ai rendez-vous s’appelle Anne Lestringant” and “C’est la médecin de mon ami”. You can say femme médecin, but this might sound dated, as it could point to a woman doctor being an exceptional case rather than the norm.
Then there are the words for professions already ending in an “e muet” which, as with other nouns and adjectives ending in an “e muet” require no spelling change, so you would just change the article preceding it: le ministre, la ministre, idem, le ministre agréable, la ministre agréable.
Approaching the issue of gender in the French language may take a bit more effort than in other languages, but there are patterns that will guide you and knowing these patterns, along with repeating them often, is a way to familiarize yourself with the gender of words in French. Remember each gender as a category, and each noun, pronoun, adjective, and determiner as being part of either one or the other category. Also, while producing phrases that correctly use gender might take a fair amount of effort, keeping track of who says what and what happened to whom while listening to someone else might actually be easier, since all the gender agreement distinguishes the different elements of phrases and their characteristics and will not get lost, even in the longest and most complex sentences.
Extend Your Learning with Glossika
By using Glossika as your language training resource, you will be able to get optimal results by immersing yourself in your target language on a daily basis.
Knowing and mastering French grammar can be challenging. However, the more you use them, the more clear you will be. Glossika shows you the gender of the nouns in full sentences. Instead of trying so hard to memorize the gender of the words, get used to seeing them and recognize their genders in real-life conversations. Our spaced repetition training build up your understanding of French grammar by familiarizing you little by little with various sentence structures and patterns.
Learn to speak French today!
Sign up and get 7-day full access with 1000 reps of audio training for free.