Nouns and their plural in French
Les noms et leur pluriel en français
Salut, and welcome to our lesson about Plural in French at Language Easy! Plural is indeed a universal concept which is present in all languages. Basically, we just need to explain how it is formed and a few of its specificities. Good news ! Once you learn the rules, there aren’t too many exceptions, so it’ll certainly be easy to get going in conversation.
Allez, on y va !
About plural in French
À propos du pluriel des noms
Plural (le pluriel) is a variation of the singular form. The plural form is used when two or more entities are referred to.
We say that nouns “vary in number” (en nombre).
It is important to realize that unlike the gender of a noun which is an intrinsic characteristic, the singular and plural forms are pure grammatical variations of the same word. A noun IS masculine or feminine, but it HAS a singular and a plural form.
Let’s start with a few examples, as usual :
- un gorille
a gorilla (singular)
- deux ou trois gorilles
two or three gorillas (plural)
As we saw in our previous lesson about gender, a noun is generally introduced by an article which must vary in gender according to it. In addition, the article must also take its singular or plural for according to the “number” of the noun : les (definite article) or des (indefinite article) :
- un gorille→ des gorilles
a gorilla → gorillas
- la girafe → les girafes
the giraffe → the giraffes
In fact, the plural form of the articles are the same for the masculine and feminine cases, which explains why we always present nouns in their singular form when we introduce them (if we didn’t, it would mean that the gender information would be lost).
To go further, see our complete lesson about articles.
How to form the plural of french nouns
Comment former le pluriel des noms
As far as nouns are concerned, the rules for the formation of the plural in French are few and simple.
Rules for forming the plural :
- nouns ending by “eu“, “au” or “eau” : add a final “x“
- nouns ending in “al” : change it to “aux“
- nouns already ends by an “s“, a “z” or an “x“: don´t change anything
- any other noun : add a final “s”
Firstly, let’s set a few examples for the last default case :
- le voyage → les voyages
- la chienne → les chiennes
Nouns ending in eu / au / eau :
- le feu → les feux
- un étau → des étaux
- un anneau → des anneaux
Nouns ending in al :
- un cheval → des chevaux
- un animal → des animaux
Nouns already ending in s, z or x :
- une souris → des souris
- un quartz → des quartz
- un lépreux → des lépreux
It’s pretty much all you should know about how to form the plural in French. However, there are exceptions, and I’m afraid you’ll have to learn a few lists of words with an irregular plural ; I learnt those lists by heart when I was 13 🙂
Exceptions in eu :
- un bleu → des bleus
blues, rookies or bruises
- un pneu → des pneus
Exceptions in au :
- un landau → des landaus
Exceptions in ou :
- un hibou → des hiboux
- le genou → les genoux
- un chou → des choux
- le caillou → les cailloux
- un pou → des poux
- le joujou → les joujoux
- un bijou → des bijoux
Exceptions in al :
- un cal → des cals
- le carnaval → les carnavals
- un pal → des pals
- le récital → les récitals
- un festival → des festivals
- le chacal → les chacals
Exceptions in ail :
- un bail → des baux
- le corail → les coraux
- un émail → des émaux
- le travail → les travaux
- un vitrail → des vitraux
stained glass windows
Plural in French compound nouns
Le pluriel des noms composés en français
Compound nouns (les noms composés) are composed by more than one word (generally two) ; they usually are connected together by a hyphen “-“. They can be a combination of nouns, adjectives, verbs, past or present participles, adverbs, prepositions, determiners. Their plural in French is not always obvious, but we can state an easy rule to understand how it goes :
In a compound noun, only the composing nouns, adjective and past participles are put to plural, unless the meaning commands otherwise.
Firstly let’s give a few examples of the normal case :
- un coffre-fort→ des coffres–forts
strongboxes (lit. vault-strong), noun+adjective
- un sourd-muet→ des sourds–muets
deaf and blind people (lit. deaf-blind), noun+noun
- un ouvre-boîte→ des ouvre–boîtes
can openers (lit. open-box), verb+noun
- une contre-attaque→ des contre–attaques
counter-strikes (lit. counter-attacks), preposition+noun
- le savoir-vivre→ les savoir–vivre
good manners (lit. know-to-live), verb+verb
- un passe-partout→ des passe–partout
masterkeys (lit. pass-everywhere), verb+adverb
- un non-voyant→ des non–voyant
blind person (lit. not-seeing), adverb+verb
Plural commanded by the meaning
Here are examples where the meaning commands the use of plural :
- Un laissé-pour-compte → des laissés-pour-compte
people who are left behind (lit. left-for-account), participle+preposition+noun
Several persons are left behind but there is only one account for all of them.
- Un coupe-papier → des coupe-papier
paper cutters (lit. cut-paper), verb+noun
The noun paper is used in as indefinite, we’re speaking about cutting paper (du papier, and not a paper (un papier.
- Une assurance-vie → des assurances-vie
life insurances (lit. insurance-life), noun+noun
Each contract hedges only for one life.
- Un timbre-poste → des timbres-poste
stamps (lit. stamp-post), noun+noun
The stamps are made for the post-office.
- Une nouvelle éclair → des nouvelles éclair
news flash (lit. news-lightning-bolt), noun+noun
The news came at the speed of a lightning-bolt.
Note that sometimes, also driven by the meaning, one of the composing nouns can be plural while the compound noun is at the singular form :
- un garde-meubles → des garde-meubles
storage (lit. keep-furniture), verb+noun
A storage is meant to keep various pieces of furniture at once. In this case, it’s also correct to write it all singular : un garde-meuble.
Sometimes, you might have to be careful, because some words have the same form as a noun and as a verb.
- Un garde-malade → des gardes-malades
live-in nurses (lit. guard-patient), noun+noun, a guard
- Un garde-manger → des garde-manger
pantries (lit. guard-food), verb+verb, to guard
Quite oddly, Grand (grand) and franc (free, old french) are always masculine in compound nouns.
- Un grand-père → des grands-pères
- but : Une grand-mère → des grand-mères or des grands-mères
- Un franc-maçon → des francs-maçons
- but : une franc-maçonne → des franc-maçonnes or des francs-maçonnes
When to use the plural in French
Quand utiliser le pluriel en français
Indeed, when we refer to only one, two or more entities, the choice is obvious. But what about null, decimal and fractional quantities ?
For a fractional quantity, the rule applies : the choice depends if the fraction is bigger than 2 or not.
- 3/4 litre
- 1,9 litre
- 2,1 litres
- 25/10 litres
For a negative quantity, the choice is made according to the value without the negative sign.
- -1,8 degré Celsius
- -3 degrés Celsius
With a null quantity, the right choice is singular.
- 0 litre d’eau.
- Je compte zéro mouton.
- Il n’y a aucun passager.
Exceptionally, if the sentence is constructed with the words sans (without) or pas de (no), the use of plural or singular depends of the logical meaning of the sentence :
- Elle n’a pas d’enfant(s)
= She doesn’t have any children.
If she had children, she could have one, or more, hence both singular and plural are correct.
- Il n’y a pas d’étoiles dans le ciel ce soir.
= There are no stars in the sky tonight.
If there were stars, there would undoubtedly be more than one, so singular is wrong.
- Une nuit sans lune.
= A moonless night.
If the moon was there, she would obviously be the only one, hence plural is not accepted.
Finally, another two exceptions are worth stating. Firstly, the idiomatic expression “plus d’un” (more than one) is always followed by a singular.
- Plus d’un homme a déjà voyagé aux États-Unis. (more than one man has already traveled to the States)
On the contrary, the expressions “un ou deux” (one or two) or “moins de deux” (less than two) are always followed by a plural:
- Moins de deux jours ont suffi.
= less than two days were enough.
- Une ou deux heures suffiront.
= one or two hours will be enough.
Did you know ?
Le saviez-vous ?
In French, as in English and other main languages, there only exist the singular (for one) and the plural (for two or more). But did you know that in other languages, the system is a bit more complex ?
Opposed to singular and plural, these grammatical forms can exist :
- duel (for exactly 2), that existed in a lot of ancient languages like Greek, Sanskrit or ancient Arab for example, but also current
- triel (for exactly 3)
- paucal (for small indefinite quantities)
- double paucal (for abnormally small quantities)
- double-plural (for abnormally large quantities)
Also, in certain languages, instead of being naturally singular and having a modified plural form, some words refer naturally to multiple objects and have a altered singular form that refer to a single object.
Interestingly, one of the languages that has the most complex system for plural is the sursurunga, a language spoken by about 3000 people in New Ireland.
C’est quoi, la suite ?
Et voilà, we reached the end of our lesson about the plural in French. You now know how to for the plural of nouns, but we´ll need one or two other lessons to learn how to deal with the plural when it comes to the conjugation of the verbs. If you want to stay into the thematic before the next lesson, check out now our lesson about verb agreement !
Allez, à bientôt !