One of the main ways that French grammar differs from English is the existence of genders for things as well as people. While in the English language you will say “he” for a man or a stallion and “she” for a woman or a cow – you wouldn’t call a table “she” or a bucket “he”. Yet that is exactly how French grammar works. It’s “une table” and “un sceau”, and when you are using pronouns you will say “elle est mise” (”she (the table) is set”) and “il est plein” (”he (the bucket) is full”).
Fortunately, one thing the French language doesn’t do (but some other languages such as German and Greek do) is decline its articles or nouns. Like most Romance languages – and even English – it does decline its pronouns.
So let us first take a look at the pronouns involved and see how we decline our tables and buckets. Then we can look at the definite and indefinite articles and finally answer the most burning question of all: how can you tell the gender of a French word?
Like many languages, French personal pronouns are declined – that is, they look different depending on their grammatical function within a French sentence. Let’s go through it in English first:
He is reading a book by Gustave Flaubert. “He” is subject.
If this person is the object of the sentence, we say: Flaubert is taking him places I had never known.
And if he or she is the indirect object: Reading is the best thing that ever happened to him.
Here are the basic French pronouns:
|English||Subject||Direct Object||Indirect Object|
Note: if you want to use a plural encompassing both masculine and feminine things, use “ils”.
Another note: in French, me, te, le, la are contracted if the word that follows begins with a vowel:
Je t’aime. – I love you.
Tu m’aimes – you love me.
Je l’aime. – I love him (or her).
She gives the ball to the dog. Elle donne la balle au chien.
She gives the ball to him. Elle lui donne la balle.
She gives it to the dog. Elle la donne au chien.
He reads the book to the mouse.* Il lit le livre à la souris.
He reads it to the mouse. Il le lit à la souris.
He reads the book to it. Il lui lit le livre.
He reads it to it. Il le lui lit.
*lots of people read to their pets.
When taking French grammar lessons, the easiest way to know if a word is masculine or feminine is quite simply by learning it with its article (or looking it up in the dictionary). If you come upon a word you don’t know, if you are lucky the article will be right there next to it to help you along.
And while French fortunately doesn’t decline its articles, it’s useful to know them in all their iterations, from indefinite articles to possessive pronouns:
|Definite article||Indefinite article||Demonstrative pronoun||Possessive adjective||Possessive pronoun|
So, when speaking French, do you have put the adjectives in the feminine and masculine? Well, mostly.
Generally, the feminine is formed with -e, the masculine or general plural in -s and the feminine plural in -es:
Amusant – amusante – amusants – amusantes
Court – courte – courts – courtes
Vert – verte – verts – vertes
Grand – grande – grands – grandes
´Since “école” is feminine, the adjecti “maternel” has to agree and becomes “maternelle”. Photo credit: caribbeanfreephoto on Visual hunt
However, French has a rather impressive number of irregular adjectives, which is one of the many things that makes it hard to learn French for beginners.
Weak masculines – that is, masculines ending in -e – will not change in the feminine:
un clown drôle (a funny clown) – une blague drôle (a funny joke) – des films drôles (funny films).
Most masculines ending in the consonants “L”, “N”, “S” and “T” will double the consonant and add an -e in the feminine:
|Masculine singular||Feminine singular||Masculine plural||Feminine plural||Translation|
Here is a list of some of the most common irregular feminine endings:
|Masculine singular||Feminine singular||Masculine plural||Feminine plural||Example||Translation|
|-er||-ère||-ers||-ères||cher-chère||dear (both cherished and costly)|
Practice your French with graffito – did this person write correctly? Photo credit: gillesklein on VisualHunt
And of course, to add to the joys of French spelling, there is a whole series of exceptions you quite simply have to memorize. In these vocabulary words, the masculine plural form is often the same as the masculine singular. Here is a list of words with unusual feminines:
|Masculine singular||Feminine singular||Masculine plural||Feminine plural||Translation|
Careful! To further confuse things, the following adjectives have a special form in the masculine when the noun that follows begins with a vowel. Here is a list so you know how to use these words correctly:
NOTE: some French nouns starting with “h” are treated as though they start with a vowel:
Homme: un vieil homme – un bel homme
All qualifying adjectives (the ones used right next to a noun) must agree in gender and number with the noun they are describing. Plural nouns will take the masculine plural if the noun is masculine and the feminine plural if the noun is feminine. If it is a collective noun or if a pronoun designates a group of both men and women (nous, vous), the masculine applies. Qualifying adjectives will generally come after the noun:
Un garçon blond. – a blonde boy
Une fille blonde. – a blonde girl
Des enfants blonds – blonde children
Des filles blondes – blonde girls.
Sometimes, though, they come between the article and the noun. This is only for expressions describing the
In “le café gourmand”, “café” is masculine so it’s the basic form “gourmand”. The adjective is not one of the BAGS groups, so it comes after the noun, hence: le café gourmand”. Photo on VisualHunt.
Un petit garçon – a little boy
Une jolie fille – a pretty girl.
Des gentils enfants – nice children
Des jeunes filles – young girls
Adjectives used with “être” – to be – also agree with their subjects in gender and number:
Le garçon est petit. – the boy is small.
La fille est petite. – the girl is small.
Les enfants sont petits. – the children are small.
Les filles sont petites. – the girls are small.
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When you study French, remember that when using compound verbs – that is, verb tenses using an auxiliary verb – the rule is that the participle has to agree in gender and number ONLY if the auxiliary verb is “être” (to be).
Thus, a conjugation of French verbs using “avoir” would be:
J’ais cassé le vase. – I broke the vase.
Il avait cassé le vase. – He broke the vase.
Elle avait cassé le vase. – She broke the vase.
Ils ont cassé le vase. – They broke the vase.
BUT when you conjugate with “être”, the participle will agree with the subject:
Je suis né. – I was born (I = masculine).
Elle est née. – She was born.
Nous sommes nés. – We were born.
Elles sont nées. – They (fem.) were born.
An exception to this rule is if the OBJECT PRECEDES the verb in a conjugation with “avoir” – then the participle agrees with the OBJECT:
Thus, in the phrase:
Marie a aimé Mireille. (Marie has loved Mireille.)
“Aimé” doesn’t have to agree with Marie. Nor does it have to agree in this phrase:
Jean a aimé Mireille.
But in the phrase:
Jean l’a aimée. (Jean has loved her.)
“Aimée” agrees with the object – in this case, a woman.
Some words are easy. A female person is a “she”, a male person is a “he”. A lot of professions have a masculine and a feminine, so that a teacher, for example, is an “instituteur” if he’s male and an “institutrice” if she’s female. You will note, however, that there is some debate on how to designate someone when the word has no feminine. When they speak French, a lot of women won’t mind being called “le docteur”, but some will prefer to be called “la docteur.” At the same time, some words designating people differ in meaning depending on whether they are used in the masculine and feminine. Thus, traditionally, the expression “l’ambassadrice”is referring to the ambassador’s wife; therefore a female ambassador is called “Madame l’ambassadeur”.
While words that are the names of professions and of male and female animals are pretty evident (l’étalon – the stallion; la jument – the mare), other words are a little more puzzling. Is a bed masculine? (Yes, “le lit”.) What about a plate? (No. “Une assiette” is feminine). This is what tends to throw English speakers off when learning how to speak French.
So how can you tell the gender of the words designating inanimate objects? Some rules, at least, apply.
And ending in “e” generally designates a feminine, excepte when it doesn’t (le vacarme – the noise but une arme),
Compound nouns of the type “verb-noun” are generally masculine: le tire-bouchon (the corkscrew), le porte-monnaie (the wallet).
Certain endings are either masculine or feminine, and if you learn them, you can quickly recognise the right gender.
Here is a list of some masculine endings:
“Carte” has an ending in -e and feminine – so “postal” is written with an -e at the end, too.
Here is a list of some feminine endings:
When learning to master a new language, having the right resources is essential. Find out more about the best books to learn French grammar.