Grammatical gender? What is it? How do you use the feminine and masculine in French? How do know if it’s feminine or masculine?
Ah the big issue of gender in French!
It torments you, you don’t understand why, or how, or anything to be honest. Who decided tables were women, but horses were men?!
Ok, ok. Let’s demystify this.
In this article, I’m going to explain to you what is grammatical gender in French, and what it does.
Author : Marie Drouvin
Salut! Je suis Marie and I'm on a mission to make learning French simple. You can find me on Youtube, or here, on this blog. And if you want to know more about how to learn French, take a look at my book.
My book : Learn French in 6 months
If you'd rather listen to this lesson, check out my video.
If not, keep reading!
First, does knowing feminine and masculine in French really matter?
“I believe that is very, very important.”
… is a lie. A big fat lie that grammar purists like to throw around.
Maybe they like to make you stress, maybe they like to feel superior on the sole basis of their mastery of grammar, or maybe they cannot handle things that aren’t perfect.
Spoiler: Grammar purists and I don’t get along.
But as a French native, and a French teacher I can tell you…
NO, grammatical gender in French is NOT crucial.
Plural is more important!
If your goal is only to make yourself understood, then you don’t need to be perfectly perfect with masculine and feminine genders, grammatically speaking of course. French people will still understand you if you use the wrong gender.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore it either.
Because it does make your French instantly better when you use the right genders.
Just like when you use the right verb endings.
Now let’s get to it.
What does it mean for a word to be feminine and masculine in French?
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??
If you are a native English speaker, or a native of a language that doesn’t use grammatical gender… it might sound a bit odd to your ears to hear a table is feminine and a horse is masculine.
If you are a native speaker of the many languages that do have grammatical gender (like Spanish, Portuguese, hell even Romanian), then good!
But if not…
The key is that – it’s not about sex.
Nor about male or female.
A table is not a woman, a horse is not a man. That would be ludricrous.
(Always wanted to use that word!)
No, it’s only a matter of grammar.
It’s like adding an -s at the third person of the singular in the present simple in English.
It doesn’t make sense. But we do it anyway.
Gender of nouns is here to make it all sound beautiful together. To put sentences on the same note. To make sure all the words of a sentence are singing the same tune.
That’s all there is to it.
When are words feminine and masculine in French?
Good news: it’s not ALL words that have a gender.
Verbs don’t have a gender.
Adjectives don’t have a gender.
Adverbs don’t have a gender.
Prepositions don’t have a gender.
You get the idea.
Common-nouns (as opposed to proper nouns) are generally inanimate objects, or animated ones, concepts or animals.
Now they are going to influence verbs, adjectives and other types of words, but they are the only one coming with a grammatical gender.
So in a sentence:
Je vais à la plage : I’m going to the beach.
There is only one noun in this sentence. Only one grammatical gender. The word plage.
And it’s feminine.
La table : the table (Feminine)
La voiture : the car (F)
Le chat : the cat (Masculine)
Le chien : the dog (M)
La maison : the house (F)
L’attente : the wait (F)
Are there rules to know when a word is feminine and masculine in French?
- Keep it light
- Be nice to me
I like these rules. They apply everywhere.
You see, grammar, rules, there are always lots of them. Always a long list. But the thing is – that’s not where you should start.
Rules always come after. Rules are build for a situation that already exist.
Language, words already existed, before rules. So any rule that you heard, especially rules about grammatical gender, are rules that have been deduced from the way French people were already using gender.
That’s why, there are so many you can’t count.
And even if some of them make sense – such a the gender of countries – they are largely just trying to explain a big mess.
A big mess of random chaos.
In truth, there are no rules. Words are either feminine and masculine in French, that’s all. There is no reason, no order.
Who decides when words are feminine and masculine in French?
Good question! I’m glad you ask.
Technically, officially, there is an institution in France, who is in charge of deciding anything related to the French language: L’Académie Française.
Although, that’s not how languages work. First, we use it, then we try to make it fit into little boxes.
Not the other way around.
So even if L’Académie Française ruled and officially stated that the word Covid (the COVID virus) is feminine… In reality, French people had decided way before that by using the masculine.
How can I know the gender of a word then?
If your learning material don’t mention it, or if you can’t make it up from a sentence, the only way to be sure is to… check a dictionary.
Now, I recommend you use WordReference.com
Because it’s as easy to use as Google Translate, and it’s actually better – because it gives you all sorts of definitions, examples in context, AND the gender of nouns!
On the picture below, you can see that the gender of the word chat is masculine, because you have the abbreviation nmwhich means masculine name.
On the website, you can hoover on the abbreviation to know what it means. (Very useful to know where to place words in sentences!)
How do you memorize gender of nouns then?
Easy answer : when you are learning French vocabulary, you learn nouns with the gender.
Instead of learning ‘table‘, you learn ‘la table‘.
If you want a more complete answer about memorisation: read How to remember French words.
Are there exceptions? You bet there is!
Oh oh, here comes trouble.
Oui, there are exceptions.
But nah, don’t worry. It’s all logical.
So I told you nouns have one gender. 1 noun = 1 gender.
EXCEPT, 1 noun doesn’t equal to one definition.
Have you heard of homonymes?
Words that are spelled the same way, pronounced the same way, but don’t mean the same things. For example.
Le vase : the vase (M)
La vase : the mud (F)
Le livre : the book (M)
La livre : the pound (F)
See how the gender changes? Well that’s homonymes for you.
Some words also have a feminine version. That’s the case of most words that define people.
Like job titles.
Un boulanger : a baker (masculine noun)
Une boulangère : a baker (female baker, and feminine noun)
Un agriculteur : a farmer (masculine noun)
Une agricultrice : a farmer (female farmer and feminine noun)
Generally, only the words ending change. And if you pay attention, you might find some patterns there
Now, it wasn’t that bad was it?
Now, why does gender in French actually matters? And what impact does it have?
Ok, now what does feminine and masculine in French matter?
In short, it has an impact on other words in a sentence.
3 specific kind of words.
Gender of nouns in French influence articles
Articles are those little words in front of nouns.
Note: They are sometimes called determiner.
They give information about the quantity or which object, concept or animal it is.
It is a red car
In French, the article you choose depends on the gender of the noun.
La fille : the daughter (F)
Une fille : a daughter (F)
Le garçon : the boy (M)
Un garçon : a boy (M)
Which article should you use? Look at this beautiful chart I’ve made for you!!
Note: L’ is used when the noun starts with a vowel.
Oui, I’m including pronouns in articles, sue me.
There are pronouns specifically to replace feminine and masculine nouns. Elle is the feminine pronoun. Il is the masculine pronoun (also used for neuter situations).
Elle : She
La voiture est rouge. Elle est rouge. : The car is red. She is red.
Il : He
Le film était bien. Il était bien. : The movie was good. He was good.
And in the plural – Elles is for feminine words or people / Ils is for masculine and mixed words or people.
Gender of nouns in French influence adjectives
Adjectives are words that give you more information about the noun.
Both words will be linked – so they need to be complimentary. They need to agree on some level.
Just like a couple.
So if one is feminine, then the other need to be too.
Une grande fille : a tall girl.
Un grand garçon : a tall boy
Generally, the feminine form is simply the masculine form of the adjective, with an -e at the end.
You can find a detailed example on this article about the adjective cute in French.
Note : Including possessive adjectives, which I talk about in this article (coming soon!)
Gender of nouns in French influence past participles
Now for beginners, you’re set. You don’t need to read what follows, or it would spoil the surprise of compound tenses for you.
But, if you are an intermediate, then you might be familiar with compound tenses.
Compound tenses are tenses that have several parts to then. An auxiliary, and a participle.
Like a past participle.
La classe est finie. : The class is over.
Le livre est fini. : The book is over.
See how the ending changes? Well that’s how the gender influence the past participle.
And the ending also depends on the verb group. Which are…. (second line is masculine, third is feminine)
And now what?
Now you’re ready.
Because you understand genders, you know what to look out for when you build a sentence and want to use the right gender at the right time.
You have a better understanding of what it does and what it means.
Now, go make me proud!
PS: And join us at the French Club if you enjoyed this article. When you are a member of the club, you can send me questions about why and grammar, and I’ll do my best to answer! YAY
PPS: A little bit of sharing would make this website even better too!
PPPS: And check out these article, you’ll find plenty of words to use there!
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How do you tell the difference between masculine and feminine in French? ›
How do you know when to use masculine vs feminine words? The best place to start when trying to figure out the gender of a French word is by looking at the ending of the word. Words that use the articles le or un are going to be masculine, and words that use the articles la or une are feminine.How do you remember if a French word is masculine or feminine? ›
- A noun is feminine if it ends in “-e” or “-ion.”
- The exceptions to this are the endings “-age,” “-ège,” or “-isme.”
- Nearly every other noun ending is masculine.
The gender of words in French – as well as their grammatical and social implications – can be complicated. If there's only one thing you take away from this article, it should be that the majority of words ending in -e or -ion are feminine while words with other endings are mostly masculine.What are the examples of masculine and feminine in French? ›
As you might have guessed, the word for 'woman,' femme, is feminine. To say 'a woman' we say une femme. And yes, the word for 'man,' homme, is masculine. But to say 'a man,' we say un homme.What are 5 feminine nouns in French? ›
elle, enne, emme, esse, erre, ette… La pelle (shovel), une selle (saddle), la chaussette (the sock), la fillette (the little girl), La tristesse (sadness), la terre (earth), la femme (woman)…Is there a rule for masculine and feminine in French? ›
Many masculine French nouns can be made feminine simply by changing the ending. This is usually done by adding an -e to the masculine noun to form the feminine. If the masculine singular form already ends in -e, no further e is added.What are examples of feminine? ›
Feminine is the opposite of masculine. If it has anything to do with girls and women, it's considered feminine. Anything feminine is associated with females. In American culture, that includes wearing pink, playing with dolls, sporting high heels, and getting weepy during sad movies.What are masculine words in French examples? ›
French Nouns Ending in Ier, Er and Eur are Masculine
French words ending in “ier and er” are masculine, such as in le fermier (the farmer), l'épicier (the grocer), le cahier (the notebook), le pommier (the apple tree), le boucher (the butcher), le boulanger (the baker) – many names of professions end in “ier”.
In French, the definite articles are placed before a common noun: “Le” before a common noun in the singular masculine. Example: le bus. “La” before a common noun in the singular feminine.How do you know when to use UN or UNE in French? ›
In French, the indefinite articles are placed before a common noun: “Un” before a common noun in the singular masculine. Example: un garçon. “Une” before a common noun in the singular feminine.
Why French has feminine and masculine words? ›
French is a Romance language, meaning it is a dialect of Modern Latin, and the nouns are gendered in Latin. The Latin declensions have been lost and the neuter gender merged to masculine, but the words which were either gender in Latin, are still that way in French.What is the difference between UN and UNE in French? ›
Un for the masculine noun. Une for the feminine noun. The plural “some” in English corresponds to “des.” In French. Note that the plural indefinite article is the same for all nouns, whereas the singular has different forms for masculine and feminine.