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Grammar: Gender

Gender of nouns

In French, all nouns have a grammatical gender, that is, they are masculine or feminine for the purposes of grammar only.

Most nouns that express entities with gender (people and animals) use both a feminine form and a masculine form, for example, the two words for “actor” in French are acteur (m) and actrice (f).

The nouns that express entities without gender (e.g., objects and abstract concepts) have only one form. This form can be masculine or feminine. For example, la voiture (the car) can only be feminine; le stylo (the pen) can only be masculine.

There are some nouns that express entities with gender for which there is only one form, which is used regardless of the actual gender of the entity, for example, the word for person; personne; is always feminine, even if the person is male, and the word for teacher; professeur; is always masculine even if the teacher is female.

With all that being said, there are three nouns in French where gender is altered when put in the plural form:

amour (un bel amour => des belles amours orgue délice

French Grammar • Gender
Gender of Nouns Genre des Noms
Examples
MasculineCommon Endings Used
With Masculine Nouns:
le chevalthe horse-agele fromage
the cheese
le chienthe dog-rle professeur
the teacher
le livrethe book-tle chat
the cat
le bruitthe noise-ismele capitalisme
capitalism
FeminineCommon Endings Used
With Feminine Nouns:
la colombethe dove-iela boulangerie
the bakery
la chemisethe shirt-ionla nation
the nation
la maisonthe house-ite/-itéla fraternité
brotherhood
la libertéliberty-ncela balance
the scales
-nne
-mme
-lle
la fille
the girl
l’indienne
the Indian

Unfortunately, there are many exceptions in French which can only be learned. There are even words that are spelled the same, but have a different meaning when masculine or feminine; for example, un livre (m) means a book, but une livre (f) means a pound! Some words that appear to be masculine (like la photo, which is actually short for la photographie) are in fact feminine, and vice versa. Then there are some that just don’t make sense; la foi is feminine and means a belief, whereas le foie means liver. To help overcome this hurdle which many beginners find very difficult, be sure to learn the genders along with the words.

Definite and indefinite articles

The definite article

In English, the definite article is always “the”.

In French, the definite article is changed depending on the noun’s:

  1. Gender
  2. Plurality
  3. First letter of the word

There are three definite articles and an abbreviation. “Le” is used for masculine nouns, “La” is used for feminine nouns, “Les” is used for plural nouns (both masculine or feminine), and “L’ ” is used when the noun begins with a vowel or silent “h” (both masculine or feminine). It is similar to english, where “a” changes to “an” before a vowel.

French Grammar • Gender
The Definite Article L’article défini
singularfemininelala fillethe daughter
masculinelele filsthe son
singular, starting with a vowel soundl’l’enfantthe child
plurallesles fillesthe daughters
les filsthe sons
les enfantsthe children

Note: Unlike English, the definite article is used to talk about something in a general sense, a general statement or feeling about an idea or thing.

The indefinite article

In English, the indefinite articles are “a” and “an”. “Some” is used as a plural article in English.

Again, indefinite articles in French take different forms depending on gender and plurality. The articles “Un” and “une” literally mean “one” in French.

French Grammar • Gender
The Indefinite Article L’article indéfini
singularfeminineuneune fillea daughter
masculineunun filsa son
pluraldesdes fillessome daughters
des fils1some sons

1“des fils” does mean “some sons” but is a homograph: it can also mean “some threads”

Also note that des, like les is used in French before plural nouns when no article is used in English. Let’s imagine you are looking at photographs in an album. In English, we would say “I am looking at photographs.” In French, you cannot say, “Je regarde photographies,” you must tell which photographs you are looking at using an article. If you were looking at a set of specific pictures, you would say “Je regarde les photographies.” (“I am looking at the photographs.”) If you were just flipping through the album, looking at nothing in particular, you would say, “Je regard des photographies.” (“I am looking at some photographs.”)

Subject pronouns

French has six different types of pronouns: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person plural.

French Grammar • Gender
Subject Pronouns Les pronoms soumis
1st personsingularjeI
pluralnouswe
2nd personsingulartuyou
pluralvousyou
3rd personsingularil, elle, onhe, she, one
pluralils, ellesthey (masculine)
they (feminine)

When referring to more than one person in the 2nd person, “vous” must be used. When referring to a single person, “vous” or “tu” may be used depending on the situation; see notes in lesson 1.

In addition to the nuances between vous and tu, as discussed in lesson 1, French pronouns carry meanings that do not exist in English pronouns. The French third person “on” has several meanings, but most closely matches the now archaic English “one”. While in English, “One must be very careful in French grammar” sounds old-fashioned, the French equivalent “On doit faire très attention à la grammaire française” is quite acceptable. Also, while the third person plural “they” has no gender in English, the French equivalents “ils” and “elles” do. However, when pronounced, they normally sound the same as “il” and “elle”, so distinguishing the difference requires understanding of the various conjugations of the verbs following the pronoun. Also, if a group of people consists of both males and females, the male form is used, even if there is only one male in a group of thousands of females.

In everyday language, “on” is used, instead of “nous”, to express “we”; the verb is always used in the 3rd person singular. For example, to say “We (are) meeting at 7 o’clock”, you could say either “On se rencontre au cinéma à sept heures.” (colloquial) or “Nous nous rencontrons au cinéma à sept heures.” (formal). For more, see the Wikipedia entry.


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