Nouns and their gender in French

Les noms et leur genre en français

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about gender in French at Language Easy! It’s a difficult concept to grasp for native English speakers, because in their language, only people have a gender, not things. In French, the neutral gender doesn’t exist, and any object is either feminine or masculine. Well, at least grammatically… Don’t panic, we’ll explain everything you need to know.

Allez, on y va !

Gender in French (Claude Aveline)

About gender in French

À propos du genre en français

Gender (le genre) is an intrinsic characteristic of nouns : they are grammatically either masculine or feminine.

In French, there is no neutral gender like in some other languages, like German, so every noun has a grammatical gender, including the ones who describe things without a natural gender.

In the dictionary, masculine nouns are indicated by the notation “n. m.” (nom masculin), or simply “m.”, and feminine nouns are indicated by the notation “n. f.” (nom féminin), or simply “f.

For instance, a computer has a gender in French. Let’s see what the Larousse dictionary has to say about it :

  • ordinateur (nom masculin). Machine automatique de traitement de l’information, obéissant à des programmes formés par des suites d’opérations arithmétiques et logiques.

Well, it’s masculine.

Introducing the nouns by an article

Les articles devant les noms

As I said before, gender is intrinsic in nouns, but some other words (like the adjectives, pronouns or determiners) can vary in gender. When these words are used in association with a noun, all of them must “agree” in gender with the it, which mean that their gender must be set in accordance.

For example, these nominal groups are correctly formed :

  • le (m) beau (m) jardin (m).
    The pretty garden.
  • la (f) belle (f) nature (f).
    The pretty nature.

While these ones will sound (and be) tremendously wrong.

  • la (f) beau (m) nature (f)
  • le (m) fleur (f)

For this reason, knowing gender of a noun nouns is essential when you learn new ones. So, there are three approaches for this. When it’s possible, you can guess the grammatical gender according to the natural gender.

  • homme (man) is masculine
  • poule (hen) is feminine

It’s almost always the same, because gender in French pays attention to the natural gender of what the noun describes, but there are some exceptions though. Also, this approach is not possible when there is no natural gender (as for objects for example). So it isalways  better to memorize each noun along with its gender:

  • jardin = garden, masculine
  • feuille = leaf, feminine

This is actually the approach used in the dictionaries.

Alternatively, you can memorize each noun along with the article (definite or indefinite) of the corresponding gender (le or un for masculine, la or une for feminine).

  • la nature = nature
  • un arbre = a tree

This is the approach generally used by all the methods for learning French, including

Natural gender and counterpart

Le genre naturel et la contrepartie

When applicable, the grammatical gender of a noun generally corresponds to the natural gender of what it refers to (whether it’s of male or female nature).

And of course, if there is a natural gender, then there is a counterpart of the other gender.

In some cases, it can be constructed from the original noun, but in some others, it’s a completely different word. So, let’s explore explore the subject.

1. The counterparts differ in their termination

There are word terminations that are characteristic of the masculine gender in French, and others that are characteristic of the feminine gender. And of course, there are correspondences.

Here is a table with masculine words with all the main terminations that exist, and their feminine counterpart. Words with the same ending behave the same way, so you can use this table as a guide.

Masculine (grammatical and natural) Feminine (grammatical and natural)
L’ami (a friend) L’amie
Un technicien (a technician), un chien (a dog)…. Une technicienne, une chienne
Le prêtre (a preast), le maître (a master), l’âne (a donkey)… La prêtresse, la maîtresse, l’ânesse
Un boulanger (the baker), un policier (the policeman)… Une boulangère, une policière
Le patron (the boss), le garçon (the waiter)… La patronne, la garçonne
Un aviateur (an aviator), un lecteur (a reader)… Une aviatrice, une lectrice
Le vendeur (the seller), le chanteur (the singer)… La vendeuse, la chanteuse
Un méchant (the bad guy), un mécréant (the misbeliever)… Une méchante, une mécréante
Le cousin (the cousin), le lutin (the leprechaun)… La cousine, la lutine
Un paysan (the peasant), un artisan (the smith)… Une paysanne, une artisanne
Le cadet (the younger son), le farfadet La cadette, la farfadette
Un veuf (a widow) Une veuve

Remember that we’re talking about noun that have a natural gender. You’ll meet nouns that don’t have a natural gender while they still end with one of these same terminations. For example, un sapin (a pinetree) ; you might be tempted to construct its feminine counterpart by adding a final “e” (like for la cousine), however la sapine is a word that doesn’t actually exist or mean anything.

Alternatively, you could end up forming a word that has little (or nothing) to do in terms of meaning:

  • un cachet (a pill) / une cachette (a hide)
  • le tour (the turn) / la tour (the tower)
  • un pendule (a pendulum) / une pendule (a clock)
  • le livre (the book) / la livre (the pound)

2. The counterparts are exactly the same

It is generally due to the fact that the masculine noun already ends by a -e, so there is no need to change the ending. Although the words are the same, the grammatical gender is changed.

Masculine Feminine
Un artiste (an artist), un boudhiste Une artiste, une boudiste
le guide (the guide) la guide
Un autre (another) Une autre
Le barbare (the barbarian) La barbare
Un apôtre (a apostle) Une apôtre

3. The counterparts have nothing to do with each other

Indeed, when you study vocabulary, it’s a good idea to learn these words in pair.

Masculine Feminine
Un coq (the hen) Une poule (the chicken)
Le stewart (a stewart) L’hôtesse de l’air (an air hostess)
Un écrou (a nut) Un boulon (a bolt)
Le père (the father) La mère (the mother)
Un homme (a man) Une femme (a woman)
Le garçon (a boy) La fille (a girl)
Un frère (a brother) Une soeur (a sister)

4. the word is exactly the same, and the grammatical gender too

These make the rare cases when the grammatical gender in French differs from the natural gender. This is usually the case only with animals or work titles. So, as there is absolutely no clue whatsoever about which of the two same words is used, if you want to specify the natural gender, you will have to do so explicitly.

  • Un puma (m), un puma mâle / Un puma (f), un puma femelle or une femelle puma.
  • Un bandit (m) / Un bandit (f), un bandit femme, or more frequently: une femme bandit.
Une tortue (a tortoise, m/f)
Un crocodile (a crocodile, m/f)
Le professeur (the teacher, m/f)
Un écrivain (a writer, m/f)
Un auteur (an author, m/f)
Le médecin (the doctor, m/f)
Un chauffeur (the driver, m/f)
Le magistrat (magistrate, m/f)

As a matter of facts, nowadays, it is correct and accepted to make these titles feminine by adding a final “e” :

  • Un professeur / une professeure
  • Un chauffeur / une chauffeure
  • Un écrivain / une écrivaine

Still, you will not hear it very often.

Nouns without a natural gender

Le cas des noms sans genre naturel

A lot of nouns don’t have a natural gender, that is to say that what they are referring to doesn’t have a male or female nature. It is the case for most objects, places, and concepts. Such nouns still have a grammatical gender in French, but it’s arbitrary, originating from historical forgotten reason. As weird as it may feel to you, you’ll have no choice than learning by heart that in French, table, houses, cars and chairs are feminine while boats, planes, books and gardens are masculine.

Days of the week are always masculine in French.

  • le lundi, le mardi, le mercredi, le jeudi, le vendredi, le samedi, le dimanche

Cardinal points are always masculine in French.

  • le nord (north), le sud (south), l’est (eat), l’ouest (west), le sud-ouest

Names of trees are always masculine in French.

  • un sapin (a pinetree), un chêne (an oak)…

Names of languages are always masculine in French.

  • le français (French), l’anglais (English, m), le grec (greek)…

Names of disciplines are always feminine in French.

  • la philosophie (philosophy), les mathématiques (mathematics, f), la médecine (medecine)…

Here are some other examples :

Nouns without a natural gender
Le temps (time)
Un espoir (a hope)
Une pomme (an apple)
La culture (the culture)
Un fantôme (a ghost)
Le voyage (the trip)
Une planète (a planet)
La colère (anger)
Une herbe (a herb)

Did you know ?

Le saviez-vous ?

All languages don’t include a notion of gender. In Basque, Finnish or Estonian, it doesn’t exist. In mandarin Chinese, it only exists for some pronouns in the written form. In English, it tends to disappear, as it now concerns only the third person singular pronoun and its possessives.

On the contrary, in other languages, gender can be a more complex notion than just masculine or feminine. They can include other genders :

  • Neutral (neither feminine nor masculine) : in German, Sloven and modern Greek for example
  • Common (feminine and masculine together)
  • Ambiguous (feminine when singular and masculine when plural, or vice-versa) : in Romanian for example

Let’s note here that in French, there are three words that behave in an ambiguous way : amour (love), delices (delight) and orgue (organ) are masculine when singular and feminine when plural.

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lessons about gender in French. Take a rest, and when you are ready you can read our article about singular and plural.

Allez, à bientôt !

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