French students - A trick to help with masculine or feminine.

If you are learning French in school or elsewhere, you may wonder how to tell if a noun is masculine or feminine, especially if it begins wih a vowel like “l’enfant” which makes it impossible to tell if people are saying “le” or “la”.

Here is a trick that works for many many thousands of French nouns. It does not work with common, ancient nouns like “eau” or “air” or “mur” or “bois”, and there are sometimes exceptions to the rule, but it is a useful trick anyhow.

The trick is that nouns with the same ending tend to be all or almost all masculine or feminine.

Nouns ending in “ion” all tend to be feminine. it is LA constitution, fédération, institution, communion absolution, exclusion, etc. etc. Exceptions are **le lion ** and le bastion.

Nouns that end in “é” and whose English cousins end in “y” are almost always feminine. La liberté, fraternité, égalité, stupidité,

The “ment” endings are all or almost all masculine: It is LE gouvernement, serment, piment, etc. etc. I cannot think of any exceptions.

The “on” endings tend to be all masculine. LE garçon, le ballon, le menton etc.

“ière” endings = feminine. LA soupière, la portière, la manière, etc.

I will not bore you with the whole dictionary, but start flipping through a French dictionary and noting the gender of nouns with the same endings. You will be amazed at how useful this trick can be.

This is cool, Valteron. I knew about the -tion nouns being feminine, but not about the others. Now all I need is a French dictionary that lists words by their endings.

I believe you can get this effect in English by searching the online or CD/DVD version of the OED2 and listing the results. Is there a French dictionary with similar searchability?

Scene: A first-year high school french class. The teacher is giving a vocabulary quiz, in which she speaks the word and the class must write it on their paper, including the correct article.

Teacher: le livre
Class: <scribble, scribble>
Teacher: la salle
Class: <scribble, scribble>

Afterwards, as the students file out of the classroom, Turek hears many people grumbling about the quiz.

Grumbler 1: Damn it, I can never remember the gender on those stupid nouns!
Grumbler 2: I know! Like, me neither, dude.
Turek (looking boggled): Uh… you idjits know she *says * “la” or “le”, right?

There may well be a searchable French dictionary, but a paper dictionary will do as well.

French is my mother tongue so I just sort of grew up knowing which was which.

But I notice i is very easy to do with a paper dictionary.


  • Communisme, opportunisme, illusionisme, fascisme, catholicisme

  • Équateur, menteur, chauffeur (but LA peur)

Feminine: Messe, souplesse, négresse (pejorative) politesse, finesse

So there ARE exceptions to beware of (ozone is masculine but zone is feminine). But I have found that exceptions notwithstanding, there are dozens and dozens of these groupings and that the rule can ve very useful.

It is especiialy useful when the noun begins with a vowel. Is it “absolution complet or complète”? It must be complète, right?

Believe it or not, very few native French speakers are aware of this! I have met francophones who were surprised when I told them. But I have a theory that native French speakers rarely make a mistake about the gender of a noun partly because they are subconsciusly aware of this rule. When everything you have ever heard ending in “ment” is masculine, you just naturally know that “ensevelissement” (burial of a corpse or burial of a town in a landslide, for instance) is masculine, even if you have never heard it before.

My daughter is taking French. I’m sure she’ll find this helpful. Thanks!!

Valteron, you’re just the person to ask. I’ve always wondered how native speakers deal with relatively uncommon nouns. Do you ever find yourself not so sure about an article, and just winging it, or faking it by saying “Une sorte de…”?

So, for example, if you don’t mind being subjected to a quiz, can you put the correct gender to the following less-common French words, without recourse to a dictionary? These words are chosen more or less at random:


I’m not ** Valteron **, but yes, sometimes, a native french speaker can be mistaken about the gender of a word. The less educated the speaker and the more uncommon the word, the more likely the mistake is, of course. But on the overall, such errors are quite rare for a native speaker, except maybe when particulary tricky words are carefully selected precisely for this purpose. It’s generally not an issue, as opposed to, say, conjugations, plurals, etc…
As for the quizz, I know the right gender for all of them (take my word for it, I won’t give the answers in case someone would want to play). Actually, looking more closely, the gender of all these nouns would be easy to guess, even if they were just made up words rather than actual ones. Only one is somewhat tricky and this only because a relatively similar, and more common, word of the opposite gender exists. People not knowing the word you listed might be mistaken as a result, I suppose.
Basically someone who knows a word will know the gender, normally. I think the couple (word+gender) is automatically memorized when the word is learnt for the first time, not just the word. And besides, as ** Valteron ** mentionned, the gender of an unknown word (say, the name of a new technological gadget) will be guessed correctly by most people without even thinking about it.

I had a suspicion that this might be the case, but can you explain this a little further? It would be enormously helpful.

Out of curiosity Valteron: what gender do you consider the noun *l’après-midi * to be? I’ve had conflicting answers.

And do cities have genders? *Beau * Paris? *Belle * Sydney?

My guess is that *après-midi * is masculine. Now let me look it up… . . . . Son of a fusil! Accordinjg to the Larousse Dictionary, it can be either, your choice.

Of course, there are a few nouns like this, almost all of them beginning with vowels. I suspect the reason is that since nobody can tell which it is when you speak, they are ‘bisexual’ nouns.

When speaking about a city, you would most likely treat it as feminine because it is lune ville. But you would more likely say “La belle ville de Paris, la belle ville de Sydney” or “Paris est une belle ville” or even “Paris la belle” “Sydney la belle” if you want to sound poetic.

Sometimes leaving out the noun that is understood really shocks non-francophones. For example, in Montreal you will see a hotel called “Le reine Elizabeth”. No, Queen Elizabeth has not had a sex change. :smiley:

She herself is still “La reine Elizabeth” but the word hôtel is masculine, so when they say “Le reine Elizabeth” in refernce to a hotel, they are really saying “Le (hôtel) reine Elizabeth.”

Similarly, we say “Chicken à la King” even though it was named after a male chef named King. But they are really saying “à la mode de King”.

These words may have been chosen at random but they are somewhat obscure, except maybe for icône. But I guessed the gender correctgly for all except one, redingote. I think that it was the endings that tipped me off on the others, although I confess I did not know what an ajonc or an appentis were until I looked them up. But appentis has the same ending as “coulis” that stuff they dribble on a plate the size of a hub-cap containing a piece of cake the size of a postage stamp in French restaurants where they charge you $8 for desert. :smiley:

Maybe redingote threw me because it is really just the French version of the English word “riding-coat” and for some reason I thought it was masculine. The others were easy though.

Heh, thanks. This should save me some embarrasment. I spend all day teaching computers to kids in this godforsaken language that I only studied for ten weeks and lets just say my French gets a lot of laughs from the students.

Well, I think I’ve finally figured this out. I think what clairobscur is indicating is that words that end similarly are likely to have the same gender.

So in my example, “ajonc” is similar to the much more common “tronc,” and both are masculine. “Herse” ends like “averse,” and both are femininine. Valteron mentions “hôtel” as masculine, and it seems like most words ending in -el, (autel, pastel, rappel, etc.) are also masculine.

I’m sure the “rule” I’ve discovered has exceptions, but still, it seems to give you a big leg up over guessing.

I have to say, this is a revolutionary discovery for me. Now, you would think that a) somebody would have mentioned this to me before now, or b) I would have discovered it myself – but I guess our Anglo-Saxon prejudice against the gender system is so pronounced that we convince ourselves the whole thing is completely irrational.

NO language is really rational, when you get right down to it. But here are a few encouraging facts for anyone learning French.

  1. After a while, you will get a “feeling” for the gender of nouns, and it will probably be because you will subconsciously “learn” that rule about endings. You will autmotically know that it is “**le nouveau ** gouvernement formé sous la nouvelle constitution.”

  2. French spelling (and this will knock you off your chair when you first hear it) is actually far, far more rational than English. While French is not totally phonetic like Spanish and German, its spelling generally much more phonetic than English. With all due respect to the beautiful language of Shakespeare and Milton, let’s face it. . . . . English spelling is a bloody mess. “i” before “e” except after “c” except for “weird” and “caffeine” and a few dozen other words. Silent “k” in front of “knife” and “knight”.

If I am not mistaken, English is the only major language using the Latin alphabet in which children have to spend about an hour a day for eight years to learn to spell half-way correctly. Spanish and German kids know how to spell very early in life because their languages are so phonetic.

Now, French is not perfectly phonetic. It has silent letters, like the “ent” endings in the third person plural or the silent “s” in “ils”. For example, “ils disent” is not pronounced “eelz deezent”. It is pronounced “ill deez”.

But at least these are “consistent” exceptions if you know what I mean.

So here is another big revelation that French students are not always aware of. French uses the same alphabet as English, but it has its own rules for the sounds that a group of letters produces. Once you learn those rules, reading and pronouncing French becomes much, much easier.

In English, for example, “oi” is usually pronounced “oy” as in “toil” or “spoil”.

But in French, “oi” is pronounced “wah” as in “moi” or “foi”.

In French, two l’s are generally prounounced like a “y”. I know without even looking it up that “maillon” (link in a chain) is spelled with an 'll" because it is pronounced “mah-yo(n)”. One “l” is generally pronounced like an “l” as in “militaire”. But “mille, million, milliard” and all the words derived from them like “millionaiire” are exceptions.

In French, one “s” is pronounced like a “z” unless it occurs at the beginning of a word or after an “n”. But “ss” is always pronounced like an “s”. For example, "soi, massif, silence, assurance, passion, passoire, mensuel and coussin (cushion) etc. are all “s” sounds. But cousin (cousin), maison, biscuit etc. are all pronounced as if the “s” were a “z”. Now there are always exceptions. Just like “bastion” being masculine in spite of its “ion” ending. Please do not waste time and space sending me exceptions. They exist, I know.

But once you get into the logic of French spelling and get the hang of its rules, once you get a feel for it all, you will be able to pick up a page of French and find it much much easier to read and to pronounce correctly.

Finally, a little story to cheer you up. Everybody thinks their own language is marvellously simple. When I learned German I was told by my teacher that German is simple! :dubious: It has masculine, feminine and neuter, and the adjectives and articles change according to their use in the sentence. For example, there are several different ways to say “a good man” depending on its use in the sentence.

A French friend of mine learning English once asked me what “isn’t it?” is all about in English. I explained that it is a way of asking the person if they agree with what you have just said. But if the verb is should, would, have, do, or be, then you say “shouldn’t he, wouldn’t we, hadn’t you (this form more common in England) didn’t you, or wasn’t she.” But if any other verb is involved, then you use “do” as in “he spoke well, didn’t he?”

My friend studied this for a while and then said “What a complicated language. Why not just say 'N’est-ce pas?” at the end of your statement?

This is a very useful and (to me) interesting thread. I haven’t taken French in 15 years, but when I did I got nearly, but not quite fluent. The problem being that it was always a classroom, book/paper and language lab thing for me, and I never got the “immersion” exposure to the spoken language. I can still read and write French pretty decently (except for a pitifully rusty vocabulary) but have a hard time following spoken French on TV or radio. When traveling to Montreal or Paris in the past I’ve been able to speak well enough to get replied to in French, with somewhat less success on my part on the receiving end. All in all I’ve always wanted an opportunity to “finish the job”.

For whatever reason, it took me a while to notice that words ending in -aire are pretty much always masculine: un dictionnaire, le proprietaire, le maire d’une ville, et bien sur un mousquetaire :slight_smile: (That’s the word I use to remember the gender rule now.) Also that most -aire words derive from the Latin ending -arium, which was a neuter form that translates into a masculine gender in French.

le mariage is another word I used to habitually think was feminine. Probably 'cause my girlfriend was always taking about it. Now I think about triage, dommage, portage, ravage, sauvage, all with pretty masculine connotations, to remind me of the category.

Still there must be exceptions. What are some reasonably common “gotcha” words ending in -aire or -age that are feminine in French?

Offhand, I cannot think of words ending in “age” or “aire” that are not masculine.

But a word of warning. Do not try to judge gender by the “masculinity” or “femininity” of the word. The terms “masculine” and feminine" are really just profssional jargon used by linguists to describe what re really “type A and type B” nouns in French. People who speak French, Spanish, Italian, German, Greek or any of the other languages that have gendered nouns do not think of them as possessing qualities of masculinity or femininity.

If you were meet an illiterate francophone who had never studied grammar and you pointed to the “chemise” on his back and said “chemise” is feminine, he would probably think you were saying his short looked feminine.

I do not see walls as intrinsically masculine or a window as intrinsically feminine.

After all, remember it is LE penis, vagin, sein, clitoris, but LA main, la fesse (buttock), la langue and la bouche. It is la langue whether it is in your mouth or hers. So if you want to really French. . . . . :smiley:

Good point, one that I technically know but still find a useful mnemonic in some cases, such as remembering which “tour” is which (it’s “Le Tour de France”, picturing Lance Armstrong or Indurain, but “La Tour Eiffel”). Probably not a good habit as it reinforces a misconception that could backfire if the association can be reversed.

Right you are. If you use mnemonic, better to memorize something that ryhmes like:

“Elle est belle
La tour Eiffel”

Then, by elimination, you know the other is “le Tour”.

Otherwise, you might think of the tower as a great, rigid, masculine symbol erected into the sky :smiley:

By the way, get this. In German, “Madchen” (younng woman) is neuter. Go figure.

Also remember that with words like “la victime” you remain “la victime” no matter what your sex.

“Il y avait un accident et Robardin en était la victime.”

Here is a story to cheer you up. When I was learning German, I thought to myself that no sane person could master a language that has cases in its nouns.

He is a good man = “Er ist **ein guter ** Mann”

I saw a good man= “Ich sah **einen guten ** Mann.”

I gave the book to a good man= “Ich habe das Buch **einem gutem ** Mann gegeben.”

Believe it or not, the endings change like this for masculine, feminine and neuter, depending on the use of the word in the sentence. It is sort of like remembering to say “to whom did you give it?” instead of “to who”, but you have to do it for four cases and for every blessed adjective and article you use. Makes the simple LE and LA of French sound like a snap, “n’est-ce pas?”.

So anyhow, I originally thought the Germans must be totally weird to be able to remember that and still get a sentence out. But one day, after a few months of learning German, I found myself saying “Hast du den grossen Schreibtisch?” (Do you have the large writing desk?) and I did not even have to think about adding the accusative endings to the article and the adjective."

I told my German teacher this story after class. So, I said, I guess it IS possible for human beings to talk that way every day without being weird.

She squeezed my hand and with a twinkle in her eye said: “Yah, but ze Germans ARE weird anyhow!”

I like James Thurber’s and David Sedaris’s French, myself. :slight_smile:

So generations of people studying French have had extra trouble getting rid of incorrect concepts because of imprecise linguistic jargon? :smack: Why not simply call them Type A and Type B nouns from the start, instead of conmfusing us with all this ‘gender’ nonsense? Or is the word ‘gender’ being misused in English to mean ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ when it just means ‘grammatical type’?