Writing in French with Masculine and Feminine Nouns
A basic, singular noun refers to just one of something: a book, the cheese, my house. In English, that's about all there is to know about singular nouns. French, however, adds a little more to it: Every noun has a gender (genre), either masculine or feminine.
Determining the gender of nouns
In French, all nouns have a gender. A noun's gender determines which form of articles, adjectives, pronouns, and sometimes past participles you have to use, so knowing the gender is vital to speaking and writing French. Some words even have different meanings depending on their gender, like le mari (husband) and la mari (marijuana). (Don't get those mixed up if you're talking to un policier [a police officer]!)
Most nouns that refer to people have a logical gender. Homme (man), garçon (boy), and serveur (waiter) are masculine, and femme (woman), fille (girl), and serveuse (waitress) are feminine. Animals and inanimate objects, however, are another kettle (poissonière — feminine) of fish (poisson — masculine). In most cases, there's no way to just look at a word and know what gender it is — you have to memorize the gender of each word as you learn it.
The best way to remember the gender of nouns is to make sure your vocabulary lists include an article for each noun. If possible, use indefinite articles (un and une); they don't change in front of vowels. Then, when you look at your list, the gender of the article tells you the gender of the noun.
A few word endings tend to indicate whether a noun is masculine or feminine. Words that end in -age, as in message and mirage, and -eau, like manteau (coat) and chapeau (hat), are usually masculine. On the other hand, most words that end in -ion, like libération and possession, and -té, such as liberté (freedom) and égalité (equality), are feminine. But there are exceptions, and, of course, thousands of nouns don't end with these letters.
Making nouns feminine
Nouns that refer to people often have a masculine "default" form that can be made feminine. Here's how to make the gender switch:
- To make most of these nouns feminine, just add -e to the end: un étudiant (male student) becomes une étudiante (female student).
- If a masculine noun ends in -en or -on, add -ne for the feminine form: Un pharmacien (pharmacist) becomes une pharmacienne.
- Nouns that end in -er change to -ère for the feminine: un cassier (cashier) becomes une cassière
- Nouns that end in -eur may become feminine with -euse or -rice: un vendeur (vender) becomes une vendeuse; un tradecteur becomes une traductrice
- Nouns that end in -e in the masculine form have no change for the feminine (other than in the article, which changes to une, la, or de la).
According to the Académie française, which regulates the "purity" of the French language, some nouns that refer to people, such as un médecin (doctor) and une victime (victim), retain their gender regardless of who they are applied to. Although this is the official stance in France, other French-speaking countries such as Canada have both masculine and feminine forms for most of these nouns.