It’s essential to understand the difference between masculine and feminine in French. Knowing the difference between them will dictate what words you have to use, particularly when it comes to determiners (e.g. articles), pronouns, and adjectives.
Old English used to have grammatical genders, but they fell out of use. Modern English is much simpler and does not distinguish between them. For example, in English, we just use “the” for everything whether it’s masculine/feminine or singular/plural. That’s not the case in French. That’s why many English speakers struggle with this aspect of French.
Don’t worry, though. Even for Spanish speakers and other speakers whose languages have genders, we sometimes make mistakes when telling genders apart. That’s why we put together this guide to help you better understand this subject. Let’s see the differences between le masculin and le féminin. Allons-y!
When you learn French, you will notice that most nouns are paired with articles. This is to indicate a noun is masculine/feminine and singular/plural. Gender matters in French.
Let’s start with definite articles. In English, the only definite article is “the”. Gender doesn’t matter. We can say the table, the chair, the house, the cars, etc. Simple, right?
However, French has four definite articles which are: le, la, l’, and les. We have to determine the gender of a word so we know which one to use. Let’s break this down.
We use le for masculine singular nouns. Examples: le frigo (the refrigerator), le ventilateur (the fan), le lapin (the rabbit), etc.
We use la for feminine singular nouns. Examples: la voiture (the car), la chaise (the chair), la table (the table), etc.
We use l’ for both masculine singular and feminine singular nouns. In reality, it’s the contraction of the articles le and la, but we switch them to l’ when they precede a noun starting with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). We also use l’ in most cases where it precedes a noun starting with h. Examples: l’ordinateur (the computer), l’ami (the friend), l’école (the school), l’homme (the man), l’hôpital (the hospital), etc.
Finally, we have les. We use it for plural nouns, whether they’re masculine or feminine. Examples: les chiens (the dogs), les arbres (the trees), les mots (the words), etc.
English has only two indefinite articles: a and an. On the other hand, French has three: un, une, and des.
For masculine singular nouns, we use un. Examples: un portable (a cell phone), un garçon (a boy), un plat (a dish), etc.
For feminine singular nouns, we use une. Examples: une fille (a girl), une voiture (a car), une fenêtre (a window), etc.
For plural nouns, we use des. It doesn’t matter if the nouns are masculine or feminine. The English equivalent is some. Examples: des livres (some books), des jours (some days), des boîtes (some boxes), etc.
As the name implies, partitive articles have to do with the parts of something. We use them to refer to a portion or unspecified amount of foods, drinks, or other uncountable nouns.
There are four articles of this kind: du, de la, de l’, and des. They all have to agree in gender and quantity with the nouns they precede.
For masculine singular nouns, we use du. Examples: du lait (some milk), du jus (some juice), du beurre (some butter), etc.
For feminine singular nouns, we use de la. Examples: de la viande (some meat), de la patience (some patience), de la glace (some ice cream), etc.
We use de l’ for both masculine and feminine singular nouns. Examples: de l’argent (some money), de l’eau (some water), de l’amour (some love), etc.
Finally, for plural we use des. This applies to both masculine and feminine nouns. Examples: des pommes (some apples), des gâteaux (some cakes), des lettres (some letters), etc.
In English, there is no equivalent article. Linguists translate them to “some” or “any”, but more often than not, they’re not even used.
How to Distinguish Masculine from Feminine
How do we know what is masculine and what is feminine? That’s the $64,000 question, right?
Well, in most cases, we can know the gender of a word by its ending. I said most cases because there are some exceptions. Some words are either masculine or feminine regardless of their ending. More of that later.
Look at the table below for some of the most common noun endings in French. Let’s start with masculine nouns.
|-é||le pré, le résumé|
|-ien||le comédien, le musicien|
|-eur||le ventilateur, le vendeur|
|-(i)er||le boucher, le fermier|
|-teur||le tuteur, l’acteur|
|-on||le patron, le ballon|
|-age||le garage, le village|
|-eau||le bateau, le chapeau|
|-al||l’hôpital, le cheval|
|-et||le billet, le ticket|
|-ent||l’accident, le client|
|-asme/-isme||le sarcasme, le tourisme|
|-ail||le travail, le détail|
|-in||le coussin, le lapin|
|-oir||le lissoir, le comptoir|
Now let’s take a look at some typical feminine endings.
|-esse||la paresse, la jeunesse|
|-ienne||la comédienne, la musicienne|
|-euse||la danseuse, la serveuse|
|-(i)ère||la cousinière, la cochère|
|-trice||l’actrice, la directrice|
|-onne||la baronne, la personne|
|-ade||la limonade, la fusillade|
|-ance/-ence||la différance, la présidence|
|-ée||la soirée, la vallée|
|-ette||la baguette, la facette|
|-elle||la citronnelle, la passerelle|
|-ie||l’allergie, la modestie|
|-ise||la maîtrise, la bêtise|
|-ine||la grenadine, la tartine|
|-aille||la médaille, la bataille|
|-t(i)é||la dynastie, la sortie|
|-ure||la culture, la peinture|
Nouns That Are Always or Generally Masculine
Some words are always masculine or feminine regardless of their ending. The nouns listed below are always masculine.
- Days (le lundi, le mardi, le mercredi…)
- Months (janvier, février, mars…)
- Seasons (le printemps, l’été, l’automne, l’hiver)
- Colors (le rouge, le bleu, le jaune…)
- Numbers (le zéro, le deux, le trois…)
- Letters (le a, le b, le c…)
- Languages (l’anglais, l’espagnol, le français…)
- Cardinal points (le nord, le sud, l’est, l’ouest)
- Metals (l’or, l’argent, le plomb…)
- Infinitives when used as nouns (le pouvoir, le devoir, le choisir…)
- Wines (le champagne, le merlot, le pinot noir…)
The nouns listed below are generally masculine.
- Drinks (le café, le thé, le jus…)
- Foods that don’t end in -e (le haricot, le thon, le maïs…)
- Minerals (le sel, le mica, le gypse…)
- Trees (le palmier, l’oranger, le chêne…)
- Weights and measures (le meter, le litre, le gram…)
- Words borrowed from English (le challenge, le parking, le week-end…)
Nouns That Are Always or Generally Feminine
The following nouns are always feminine.
- Quantities ending in -aine (une dizaine, une centaine…)
- Cars (une Porsche, une Volkswagen…)
- Continents (l’Europe, l’Asie…)
- Holidays and festivals with saint in their names (la Saint-Valentin, la Saint-Sylvestre…)
- Planets (la Terre, la Pluton…)
- Watches (une Rolex, une Tag Heuer…)
The following nouns are generally feminine.
- Academic disciplines (la philosophie, la chimie…)
- Most foods ending in -e (la tomate, la banane…)
Cities, States, and Countries
Not only do things have genders in French, but cities, states, and countries do, too! In fact, it would be safe to say everything has a gender in French.
Before you start pulling out your hair, I will teach you a simple rule. Most places ending in -e are feminine. The rest are masculine.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. The following countries are masculine even though they end in -e:
- le Mexique (Mexico)
- le Bélize (Belize)
- le Cambodge (Cambodia)
- le Mozambique (Mozambique)
- le Zaïre (Zaire)
- le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)
For cities, gender is no big deal since there are still some controversies among scholars. However, for states and countries, it’s important to understand gender because this will tell us what prepositions to use with them. We will talk about this in further detail in a later post.
Most job titles are either masculine or feminine. The same rules we mentioned above regarding endings apply here.
However, some job titles only use the masculine form for both men and women.
Other job titles only have feminine forms.
une femme de ménage
une hôtesse de l’air
There is some controversy regarding not only professions but the whole French language arising out of feminism and the gender equality movement. We won’t cover that here but will probably do in the future.
All French words have a gender. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to know whether a noun is masculine or feminine.
The good thing is, there are many shortcuts you can take to get the correct answer. Today, you learned you can guide yourself by the ending of a word. You also learned that several words are always or generally masculine/feminine depending on specific circumstances. By following these shortcuts, you will be able to determine the gender of a noun correctly in most cases.
There are some exceptions in French, but they’re not too many. You will have to memorize them.
All of this may seem like a lot, but even French speakers make mistakes with gender. Just keep learning and practicing.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. Au revoir!
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