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A cheat's guide to French noun genders!

There are some easy rules to follow when learning whether to use le or la with French nouns. It isn't exhaustive, but it will save you a lot of work!

In French, a noun is always* either masculine or feminine, singular or plural. But as this isn't the case with the English language, we can find it a long and difficult battle learning when to use which gender. It is, however, important to the French language, so it pays to be as accurate as you can. But don't worry, this cheat's guide will put you way ahead of the game!

 

Image (c) Santeri Viinamäki (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
Image (c) Santeri Viinamäki (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

 

It is possible to bulk learn the gender of many nouns, because the word ending can generally indicate the gender (with one or two exceptions, of course!). The following are ones you can pretty much count on in 90% of cases:

 

Masculine nouns: (le, un, du, il)

 

ending in-

 

-ment (le gouvernement, le monument, le médicament...)

-eau (le bureau, le couteau, le carreau... But watch out! L'eau (water) on its own, is feminine, as is la peau!)

-phone/-scope (un téléphone, un interphone, un microscope)

-isme (le socialisme, le réalisme)

-ier (le papier, le panier, le collier)

-al (le journal, le rival)

-et (le cabinet, le bonnet)

-acle (le spectacle but not la débâcle)

-age (le montage, le village, le massage but not la plage or la page)

 

 

Feminine nouns: (la, une, de la, elle)

 

ending in-

 

-tion (la situation, la solution, la station)

-sion (la décision, la télévision)

-ette (la bicyclette, la trompette, la cigarette but not le squelette!)

-ance (la connaissance, la dépendance, la ressemblance)

-ence (la différence, la référence, la présence, une agence but not le silence!)

-ure (la culture, la peinture, la nourriture but not le mercure, le cyanure)

-ode/ade/ude (la méthode, la salade, la certitude, la solitude, une attitude)

-oire (la gloire, la victoire, la mémoire but not le mémoire - see below)

-ique (la critique, la musique, la boutique)

 

Image (c) Jason Pratt - Boy and Girl Hummel Figurines (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
Image (c) Jason Pratt - Boy and Girl Hummel Figurines (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

 

Nouns that change gender according to whom you are referring.

Some nouns specifically refer to a man or woman in a certain role, such as une tante or un oncle, so we can't confuse the gender. In other cases, it is a matter of using a feminine form for a woman or girl and a masculine form for a man or boy, so it is usually fairly easy to get these right, too...

 

un ami, une amie

un client, une cliente

un voisin, une voisine

un étudiant, une étudiante

un Français, une Française

 

....and so on.

 

Similarly, some professions also change form according to whether you are talking about a man or a woman.

 

un musicien, une musicienne

un vendeur, une vendeuse

un acteur, une actrice

 

...but you need to be aware that some nouns do not take a feminine form, even when you are talking about a woman or girl. These are some everyday ones that you should commit to memory, although just when you think you're getting the hang of it, the French have started inventing a feminine form to nouns which have always been masculine, such as une professeure, une écrivaine, une maire, une ministre, etc...

 

un agent de police
un chef
un dentiste
un docteur, un médecin

un ingénieur
un mannequin
un peintre
un pompier

un bébé

une connaissance
une personne
une victime

 


Boite aux lettres - Public domain
Boite aux lettres - Public domain

 

 

Nouns that change meaning according to which gender you use

 

A number of nouns can take either gender to change their meaning*. As with English, a few nouns can have more than one meaning. Arguably they are each an individual noun. This is clearer in French, where using le or la can indicate the exact meaning of the noun. Because of this, it is worth trying to commit them to memory. Here are some examples:

 

Masculine form

 

le tour - tour

le mode - method

le poste - job

le mémoire - report

le livre - book

le voile - veil

Feminine form

 

la tour - tower

la mode - fashion

la poste - post office

la mémoire - memory

la livre - pound

la voile - sail


 

* Après-midi can be used with either gender, without changing its meaning! A very few nouns change gender when used in the plural form:  amour 'love' and délice 'pleasure' are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. Also orgue 'organ' is masculine, but when used in plural form to refer to a church organ it becomes feminine (les grandes orgues).