French grammar question: agreement with predicate adjective

In a flier I got from the water company which is flushing its pipes using a red dye appears the sentence: “Est-ce que la couleur rouge de l’eau est nocif pour la santé?” My question is why not nocive? A native French speaker assures me that nocive would feel wrong, but cannot explain why. Can anyone explain?

Just for the record, the question, this is part of an FAQ about the procedure is whether the dye is harmful and the answer is no, it is not.

This flier is flat-out wrong. As you write, it can only be nocive.

As for the reason why, unless you mistyped the sentence, this is a no-brainer : couleur is feminine, so the adjective must agree with the noun. Primary school stuff.

Is French your native language? As I explained in the OP, a native French speaker disagrees with you (and with me, BTW) and I accept her take as definitive.

Here is one conjecture. There is a hidden noun (the word for dye, presumably) that is masculine and is the perceived subject. Cf. “Le Reine Élizabeth” used to name both the ship and the hotel. Both bateau and hotel are masculine.

Your answer may be primary school stuff, but I am interested in the grad school reply.

I’m a native speaker.

Sorry if I sounded flippant when I said that it was primary school stuff but, based on what you wrote, it was a clear-cut case : the flier is wrong and you (and I) are right.

I did consider the possibility of a hidden noun but since you do not mention it, I could only work with the data I had. Dye is colorant and that is a masculine noun which would make the sentence correct but again, it’s impossible to tell from the data.

Since it is your native tongue (and, obviously, not mine), I cannot argue with your judgment on it, but only repeat that another native speaker (a French Canadian, to be sure) at first said what you said and then took it back and preferred nocif.

Now I am thoroughly confused. My wife read in her advanced grammar book (but English is her native language as, although she has studied French deeply) that there is something funny about couleur. First, it used to be masculine, long ago. But second, and probably more relevant, sometimes a phrase like “la couleur de marron” gets treated as though it is the masculine noun marron. In this case it is as though la couleur got treated as an attributive noun, a construction as rare in French as it is common in English, so that rouge becomes the subject.

Curious, is all I can say. Anyway, thanks for your input.

That’s interesting.

Now, I’d really like to see the broader context in order to determine why your friend chose “nocif”. I must note that Canadian French can sometimes be very different from European French in that it retains many words and expressions that are considered archaic here. It doesn’t mean that she’s wrong, just that it’s possible that usage is different. Which brings me to :

Indeed, it was masculine in Latin and became feminine at one point in French, perhaps under the influence of Celtic languages. In any case, that’s the reason for the infuriating discrepancies between Italian nouns in -ore (masculine) and French nouns in -eur (feminine) : il colore/la couleur, il sapore/la saveur, il fiore/la fleur, il favore/la faveur.

To be honest, while it is true that all colour terms I can think of are masculine in French, I would never use the expression “la couleur de marron”. I’d say “la couleur marron” in general and “la couleur du/des marrons” if I really wanted to insist on the fruit.

The mecanism you suggest could explain the use of “nocif” but honestly, I’ve never come across it. However this may be due again to differences between Candadian and European French.

The context was that it was one of a list of “Question-Réponses” (“FAQ” in the English version) about the water main flushing and I gave the entire question. The English version was simply “Is the dye harmful to my health?” It shows how complicated languages can be. I used to know a linguist (a student of Chomsky’s) who specialized in the grammar of Canadian French, but she is now retired and I could not find an email address for her. Pity.

Purists, ever inventive when it comes to replacing fine English expressions with ludicrous French ones, say Foire Aux Questions (Questions Fair, if you will).

Which I would simply translate as : Est-ce que le colorant est nocif pour la santé ? Because, as I wrote above, colorant, unlike coloration is masculine.

After consulting several french French teachers, the phrasing should have been “nocive” since “couleur” is female, but the phrase doesn’t have much sense. A better way would effectively have been to translate as “le colorant rouge n’est pas nocif”

I suspect that the French was the original. They called it “water main rinsing”, when it seems clear that the normal word would be “flushing”. In French it is called “rinçage”.

My wife has a book called “Le bon usage”, by Maurice Grevisse that she bought when she was a student in Paris in 1959-60. It goes into some detail that a phrase like “la couleur rouge” may take on, in some contexts, the gender of “rouge”. This seems to me to mean treating “la couleur” as an attributive noun. Attributives are rare in French but extremely common in English. “North American Treaty Organization” consists of a stack of three nouns used attributively and one used as a noun. Contrast with “Organization du Traité de l’Atlantique du Nord”.

Anyway, I doubt if there is any more light that can be cast on this subject. Our “rinsing” happened last night and we didn’t see the slightest trace of red dye.

Just to observe that “flor” is feminine in Spanish also, while the others are masculine in Spanish and feminine in French.

Another French (Canadian) speaker here. Definitely, without any doubt, nocive would be correct in the sentence in the OP. The subject is la couleur, the adjective refers to it and is feminine. There’s no difference between European French and ours, on this point.

But the sentence is awkward. A colour, in the rainbow / physics sense, can’t be toxic; the colouring agent could be. And in most cases it looks a bit clumsy / childish to formulate a question with Est-ce que… ? .

In advertising print, you’d see something like : Le colorant rouge est-il nocif pour la santé?

Or maybe, pushing it : La couleur rouge de l’eau est-elle nocive pour la santé?
But not La couleur rouge de l’eau est-il nocif pour la santé?

I really think you’re right. How can the color red be harmful? There remains the inexplicable fact that at least one native French speaker disagrees. She grew up in Berthierville, about halfway between Montreal and Trois Rivières.