Feminine or masculine, who never had to ask this question learning French? You probably wonder who is the sadistic guy who decided that “a tree” would be masculine and “a table” feminine, trying as best as you can to find out the logic behind. Here’s a quick advice: don’t try to find any logic for masculine and feminine nouns, there isn’t any.
“So what now?” you’re going to say, “how do I know if a have to use “le” or “la” in front of a noun?” Well, I would simply answer: “try to guess!”, and put whichever you feel sounds right!
Let me tell you a secret: if you get it wrong, it’s not a big deal, because French people would still understand what you mean. Obviously, it would sound a bit weird, but it’s okay, French people know you don’t have such a thing as noun’s gender in English, so they won’t expect you to make no mistakes. In fact, they will probably find it quite cute, I’m sure you would have a lot of success.
However, if you are really determined to get them all right as soon as possible, there is a small trick to help you at the beginning. Most of the time (like 75% of the time), a French word ending with an “-e” or with “-ion” is likely to be a feminine word, so you would put “la” or “une” in front of it.
Let’s see a few examples:
La pomme, the apple La question,
Une feuille, a leaf/sheet of paper Une télévision,
La fenêtre, the window La nation,
Une lumière, a light Une invitation,
La lampe, the lamp La création,
Une ceinture, a belt Une illustration,
La jupe, the skirt La fusion,
Une trousse, the pencil case Une utilisation,
Notice that the ones in “ion” are similar in English, you don’t even need a translation.
Masculine words usually concern all the other endings. Here are a few examples:
Le chien, the dog
Un bateau, a boat
Le lit, the bed
Un ordinateur, a computer
Le mot, the word
Un enfant, a child
Le soir, the evening
Un matin, a morning
Le Soleil, the Sun
Un cheval, a horse
Now as I said, it doesn’t always work, there are many exceptions of masculine words ending with an “-e”, especially for words ending in “-age”: le voyage, the trip ; un nuage, a cloud ; le mariage, the wedding…
But also other random masculine words ending with an “e” or with “-ion”: le téléphone, the telephone ; un livre, a book ; le verre, the glass ; un avion, a plane ; un camion, a truck…
One more thing, when it comes to talk about real persons, the gender of the nouns logically correspond to the real gender of the person: la mère, the mother ; le père, the father ; la fille, the girl ; le garcon, the boy ; un homme, a man ; une femme, a woman
Why is masculine or feminine important in French?
First, let’s do a quick reminder:
The masculine articles are “le” (the) and “un” (a).
The feminine articles are “la” (the) and “une” (a).
The plural articles are “les” (the) and “des” (some), regardless of the word’s gender.
le/un jardin > the/a garden : masculine
la/une voiture > the/a car : feminine
les/des jardins > the/some gardens : plural
les/des voitures > the/some cars : plural
And remember, even if “les” and “des” are used for both masculine and feminine nouns, knowing the gender of the noun is still important, because a noun may come with following grammatical influencers. Let me explain:
There are 5 possibilities:
1) All adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun they qualify.
Le jardin vert est grand > The green garden is big
La voiture verte est grande > The green car is big
Les jardins verts sont grands > The green gardens are big
Les voitures vertes sont grandes > The green cars are big
Though we use “les” for both nouns in the plural, the corresponding adjectives still have to reflect the gender and also the number of the nouns.
Not only the spelling changes, but the pronunciation does too with the feminine form:
vert [vêr] > verte [vêrt] ; grand [grã] > grande [grãd]
Indeed, since we have an “e” at the end, the last consonant sound is pronounced (but the “e” is mute).
2) All possessive pronouns/adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun used.
Mon jardin est grand > My garden is big
Le mien est grand > Mine is big
Ma voiture est grande > My car is big
La mienne est grande > Mine is big
Mes jardins sont grands > My gardens are big
Les miens sont grands > Mine are big
Mes voitures sont grandes > My cars are big
Les miennes sont grandes > Mine are big
Remember that all possessives agree with the actual gender of the noun, not if whether you are a female or male person (you cannot say “Mon voiture” just because you are a man for example, it’s not correct).
3) All demonstrative pronouns/adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun used.
Ce jardin est grand > This garden is big
Celui-ci est grand > This one is big
Cette voiture est grande > This car is big
Celle-ci est grande > This one is big
Ces jardins sont grands > These gardens are big
Ceux-ci sont grands > These ones are big
Ces voitures sont grandes > These ones are big
Celles-ci sont grandes > These ones are big
So you have to know how to say “this” in its masculine, feminine or plural form in order for you to be accurate.
4) All interrogative pronouns/adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun used.
Quel jardin est près de la maison ? > Which garden is near the house?
Quelle voiture est près de la maison ? > Which car is near the house?
Quels jardins sont près de la maison ? > Which gardens are near the house?
Quelles voitures sont près de la maison ? > Which cars are near the house?
I know it might be annoying to remember all these forms, but don’t worry for this one, because the pronunciation of Quel, Quelle, Quels, and Quelles is always [kêl].
By the way, I know this question is a bit weird, even though it’s correct ^^’ It was just for the example. In everyday life, French people would rather say:
Quelle est cette voiture près de la maison ? > What is this car near the house?
5) When conjugating a verb, the subject pronoun must agree with the gender and number of the noun it replaces.
Le jardin est grand > The garden is big
Il est grand > It (he) is big
La voiture est grande > The car is big
Elle est grande > It (she) is big
Les jardins sont grands > The garden is big
Ils sont grands > It (he) is big
Les voitures sont grandes > The car is big
Elles sont grandes > It (she) is big
Remember, the subject pronouns are: je ; tu ; il/elle/on ; nous ; vous ; ils/elles
In English, you would use “it” because the noun is an object, but in French we don’t have “it”. For French people, everything you look at is either a “he” or a “she”.
Alright, so we’ve seen 5 reasons why it’s important to know the gender of a noun in French, but in fact… there is another one!
Hehe, I got you!
Indeed, in French, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject when using the auxiliary verb être, to be, in the passé composé.
Je suis allé(e) > I went
Tu es allé(e) > You went
Il est allé > He went
Elle est allée > She went
Nous sommes allé(e)s > We went
Vous êtes allé(e)s > You went
Ils sont allés > They went
Elles sont allées > They went
Remember, this agreement of the past participle concerns only the verbs using the auxiliary être, to be, and not the auxiliary avoir, to have.
And don’t worry, you might as well notice that anyway, even if you add an “e” or an “s” to “allé”, it doesn’t change its pronunciation, and it’s usually the same for verbs using “être”.
Switching from Masculine to Feminine
As I said before, in French, related words must agree with each other. If the noun is feminine, the adjective describing it must also be feminine. If the noun is masculine, the pronoun replacing it must also be masculine…
The general rule to form the feminine of a word is to add an “e” to the masculine form:
Cet homme est anglais [ãglê] > This man is British
Cette femme est anglaise [ãglêz] > This woman is British
However, if the word already finishes with an “e” in the masculine, it doesn’t change in the feminine.
Ce lit est confortable > This bed is comfortable
Cette maison est confortable > This house is comfortable
Moreover, there are many word endings which take a graphical modification in the feminine, here are the most important ones:
–eux > –euse: heureux/heureuse (happy) ; chanceux/chanceuse (lucky)
–er > –ère: étranger/étrangère (foreign) ; dernier/dernière (last)
–teur > –trice: acteur/actrice (actor) ; directeur/directrice (director)
–(i/y)en > –(i/y)enne: italien/italienne (Italian) ; citoyen/citoyenne (citizen)
–on > –onne: bon/bonne (good) ; patron/patronne (boss)
Of course, some words are very irregular:
faux / fausse (false)
long / longue (long)
sec / sèche (dry)
beau / belle (beautiful)
nouveau / nouvelle (new)
vieux / vieille (old)
Note that there is a special masculine form for the last three:
beau –> bel
nouveau –> nouvel
vieux –> vieil
It’s pronounced exactly like the feminine form, but the spelling is different.
They are used before masculine nouns beginning with a vowel in order to make the language more flowing. If, however, the adjective comes after the noun, the regular masculine form is used:
Un bel arbre, A beautiful tree ; L’arbre est beau, The tree is beautiful.
Un nouvel appartement, A new apartment ; L’appartement est nouveau, The apartment is new.
Un vieil avion, An old airplane ; L’avion est vieux, The airplane is old.
To conclude this article, the most important thing to remember is that most words ending with an “-e” or with “-ion” are feminine while the rest are mostly masculine. It doesn’t always work, but it’s definitely the most effective way for you to avoid making mistakes.
Bon courage !