One of the major challenges that drives many of our students crazy is that every noun has a gender in French! It has a to either masculine (masculin) or feminine (féminin).
Globally, there is no specific reason for it; the determination of its gender depends very much on its origin, with the suggestion that the word refers to something which is supposed to be more masculine or feminine. But it would be a loss of time to find any real logic. For example, why is boulevard masculine and avenue feminine? Why is virilité feminine and féminisme masculine? Why is malheur (misfortune) masculine and peur (fear) feminine? Why is magazine masculine and revue, which has exactly the same meaning, feminine? Idem for vélo (m.), and bicyclette (f.), which both mean bicycle, or for profession (f.), and métier (m.) which both mean profession, etc.
The question that all our students ask us is: How can one know or recognize the gender of a particular word? Unfortunately, most of the time they just have to try and memorize them, and to admit that they will always make mistakes, that the French will easily understand anyway. Still, there are a few rules or patterns that can provide some clues.
I. MASCULINE WORDS
1. The following endings are almost always masculine :
—”an”: an(year), écran (screen), océan (ocean), roman (novel), plan (plan), volcan (volcano), etc.
BUT there are a few exceptions, the most important one is maman (mum).
—”ou”: bijou (jewel), chou(cabbage), cou (neck), etc.
BUT there is one exception: une nounou (a nanny).
—”phone”: téléphone (telephone), magnétophone (tape recorder), etc.
EXCEPT for a word describing a person, in such case it is feminine when it concerns a woman.
Example: un anglophone, une anglophone.
—”in”: destin (destiny), sein (breast), terrain (piece of land), bain (bath), pain (bread), grain (grain), frein (brake), coin (corner), etc.
BUT there are a few exceptions, such as: une main (a hand), la fin (the end).
NOTE: Some of these words can become feminine by adding an “e” at the end, and the pronunciation changes as you can notice by listening to the audio link: un coquin, une coquine (a naughty person), le cousin, la cousine (the cousin).
—”age”: courage (courage), fromage (cheese), garage (garage), voyage (travel), ménage & nettoyage (cleaning), etc.
BUT there are a few exceptions, such as: la plage (the beach), une cage (a cage).
—”et”: alphabet (alphabet), arrêt (stop), projet (project), budget (budget), secret (secret), objet (object), etc.
BUT there are a few exceptions, such as une forêt (forest).
—”ment”: gouvernement (government), médicament (medication), vêtement (piece of clothing), etc.
BUT there is one exception: une jument(a mare — female horse).
—”eau”: bureau (office/desk), couteau (knife), tableau (painting), etc.
BUT there are two exceptions: l’eau (water) and la peau(skin).
2. The following endings are always masculine:
—”eu”: feu (fire), jeu (game), cheveu (hair), etc.
—”isme”: socialisme (socialism), capitalisme (capitalism), féminisme (feminism), etc.
—”al”: métal (metal), animal (animal), cheval (horse), journal (newspaper), festival (festival), etc.
—”er”: panier (basket), courrier (mail), baiser (kiss), etc.
—”ard”: cafard (cockroach, or depression), retard (delay), hasard (chance), etc.
—”oir”: couloir (hallway), trottoir (sidewalk), espoir (hope), etc.
—”ail”: ail (garlic), travail (work), corail (coral), etc.
—”eil”: sommeil (sleep), réveil (waking up), soleil (sun), conseil (advice, council), etc.
—”euil”: seuil (doorstep), fauteuil (armchair), écureuil (squirrel), etc.
—”ouil”: fenouil (fennel) — the only one with this ending.
3. Nouns with the following endings can be either masculine or feminine:
—”iste”: dentiste (dentist), garagiste (car mechanic), raciste (racist), féministe (feminist), activiste (activist), cycliste (cyclist), etc.
NOTE: They can be either masculine or feminine because they refer to the profession, the specialty or the personality of an individual. They always have the same spelling, but their gender depends on whether the person you are talking about is a woman or a man.
– Jacques est un bon dentiste. = Jacques is a good dentist.
– Marie est une jeune activiste. = Marie is a young activist.
– Mon voisin est un vrai raciste.= My neighbour is a true racist.
4. In the plural: domination of the masculine
Even though old traditional ways of looking at things are changing, grammatically France remains a misogynist society. When you refer to a group of people, there only needs to be one man in the group for the entire group to be masculine when defining or describing it (we would definitely say ils and not elles when referring to the members of a mixed group).
This is the same for words. Each time you have an enumeration of words, if only one is masculine, the whole group will be masculine when an adjective is used to modify the group.
—La robe, le manteau, la jupe et la veste sont bleus.= The dress, the coat, the skirt and the jacket are all blue.
—La maison, la cabane, le château et la grange sont habités toute l’année. = The house, the cabin, the castle and the barn are inhabited the whole year long.
II. FEMININE WORDS
The following endings are usually feminine:
—”e” very often marks the feminine, such as in: vie (life), voiture (car), lumière (light), visite (visit), bêtise (stupi-dity), joie (joy), baignoire (bathtub), marque (brand), bicyclette (bicycle), salade (salad), habitude (habit), chance (luck), connaissance (knowledge), agence (agency), nourriture (food), journée (day), poubelle (garbage can), bataille (a battle), grenouille (frog), etc.
However, there are MANY EXCEPTIONS to this rule. For example: un verre (a glass), un problème (a problem), un groupe (a group), un parapluie(an umbrella), un immeuble (building), le foie (the liver), un territoire (a territory), un mensonge (a lie), un squelette (a squeleton), un stade (a stadium), le silence (the silence), le lycée (the high school), etc.
NOTE that e also marks the feminine when talking about animals: le chat, la chatte(the cat), le chien, la chienne (the dog). While for human beings there is an e at the end of both un homme (man), a masculine word, and une femme (woman), feminine.
—té: société (society), beauté (beauty), liberté (freedom), santé (health), etc.
BUT there are a few exceptions: un côté (a side), un été (a summer), un comité (a committee), etc.
—on, ion, and especially tion: maison (house), passion, décision, situation, solution, profession, collection, etc. EXCEPTIONS: un poisson (a fish), un avion (a plane), un lion, etc.
—eur: couleur (color), peur (fear), erreur (mistake), douleur (pain), fleur (flower), chaleur (heat), etc.
BUT there are many exceptions, such as : un moteur (an engine), le malheur (misfortune), le bonheur (happiness), le cœur (the heart), un ordinateur (a computer), etc.
NOTE that for professions, –eur, used for men, is frequently transformed, for women, into either: –rice, –euse, or even –eure,a fairly recent trend when referring to feminine professions.
Examples: un acteur, une actrice (an actor); un directeur, une directrice (a director); un coiffeur, une coiffeuse (a hairdresser), un chanteur, une chanteuse (a singer); un auteur, une auteure (an author), etc.
Sometimes, the feminine form of a profession follows the pattern of er/ère, as in boulanger/boulangère.
III. MOTS COMPOSES
1.When a compound word is composed of two nouns, its gender is most of the time determined by the gender of the first noun.
un appareil-photo(camera) is masculine: appareil (appliance, device) is masc., and photo is fem.;
une station-service(gas filling station) is feminine: station is fem., and service is masc.;
un chou-fleur(cauliflower) is masculine: chou (cabbage) is masc., and fleur (flower) is fem.;
la bande-annonce (trailer) is feminine: bande is fem., and annonce is fem.;
un timbre-poste (postage stamp) is masculine: timbre is masc., and poste is fem.
When both nouns are masculine, the compound word is obviously masculine.
Example: le ciné-club(film club) is masc. as well as the two words that compose it: ciné (diminutive of cinéma) and club.
When both nouns are feminine, the compound word is feminine.
Example: une année-lumière(light year) is fem., as well as the two words which compose it: année (year) and lumière (light).
2. When one of the elements of a compound noun is a verb, it is masculine.
un tire-bouchon(corkscrew) is masculine: tire is the verb tirer (to pull) in the present tense and in the 3rd person singular, while bouchon (cork) is masc.;
un sèche-cheveux(hair dryer) is masculine: sèche comes from sécher (to dry), cheveu (hair) is masc.;
un chasse-neige(snowplough) is masculine: chasse, from chasser (to hunt) is masc., neige (snow) is fem.
NOTE that among the very few exceptions, an interesting one is with the verb garder (to keep): while most words composed with this verb are masculine, such as un garde-meuble (storage unit), une garde-robe (wardrobe) is, however, fem. like robe (dress). This is because, originally, the full expression was “armoire garde-robe“, which was feminine like the first noun, armoire (closet, cabinet). It remains like this even if armoire disappeared over the years from this compound noun in everyday language.
3. When a compound word is composed of a noun and an adjective, it is most of the time the same gender as the noun.
un court-circuit (short circuit) is masc. like circuit;
la basse-cour (poultry) is fem., like cour (courtyard);
un petit-fils (grandson) is masc. like fils;
une petite-fille (granddaughter) is fem., like fille.
BUT there are a few exceptions: un rouge-gorge(robin) is masculine, even if gorge (throat) is fem.
4. When a compound word is composed of a noun and an adverb, it is usually of the same gender as the noun.
un arrière-goût (aftertaste) is masc., like goût (taste);
une arrière-boutique (back shop) is fem., like boutique (shop);
un avant-bras (forearm) is masc., like bras (arm);
une avant-première (preview) is fem., like première (first, fem. of premier).
5. When a compound word is composed of a noun and a preposition, it is most of the time masculine.
un sans-faute (faultless) is masc. even if faute (mistake) is fem.
un sans-papiers (homeless) is masc., like the word papiers (papers).
un a-côté (extra income) is masc., like the word côté (side).
un en-cas (little snack – literally meaning: in case we are a little hungry) is masc., like the word cas (case).
BUT there are a few exceptions, such as un en-tête (heading), which is masculine, even if tête (head) is fem. NOTE that nowadays it is acceptable to write entête as one word.
If you have found these rules difficult, let’s end with some good news: the easiest word of all is après-midi(afternoon), considered both masculine and feminine! Whether you say un après-midi or une après-midi, you are never wrong!