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Five facts to help learn which French words are masculine or feminine

The baffling world of masculine and feminine French nouns, their rules and exceptions. Did you know some can be both?

Woman holding masculine and feminine gender signs

Learning French means learning if words are masculine or feminine Pic:

Many a learner of French comes a cropper on the rocks of gender, which barely exists in English. The big mistake is to think there is sense to why a word should be masculine or feminine. There isn’t. 

There are some guiding principles but ultimately you have to learn which camp each word belongs to, one by one. Just to confuse you further, there are some delightfully baffling exceptions to any rule that you think you have devised. 

1: Words that can be either masculine or feminine: 

For example, après-midi (afternoon) or tentacule (tentacle). Occasionally, the same concept can be either gender depending on how you refer to it. If you talk about French (le français) it is masculine but if you change the phrase to la langue française (the French language) it becomes feminine. 

After some debate, Covid-19 has been declared officially feminine although some people tried to make it masculine because a virus is masculine. So La Covid -19 it is.

2: Words that change their meaning, depending on the gender: 

Certain words have two meanings depending on the preceding article (la/le; une/un). For example: un geste is a gesture, but une geste is a group of medieval poems. While un livre is book, une livre is money (as in livre sterling: pound sterling). Le crêpe is a kind of material but la crêpe is a pancake. La mort is death but le mort is a corpse; une moule is a mussel (or a silly person) but un moule is a mould; une manoeuvre is an operation and un manoeuvre is an artisan or someone who works with their hands. And while un poèle is a stove, une poèle is a frying pan…

Read more 10 tips for speaking better French

Read more Le Havre, Le Mans: How do these French place names work with à or de?

 

3: Words that are masculine in the singular but plural in the feminine:

At primary school French children learn the three famous words that are masculine in the singular but become feminine in plural: amour (love), délice (delight) and orgue (organ)

4: Job titles are a cause of heated debate: 

For over two decades, purists of the language resisted the changing of le ministre (minister of state: masculine) into la ministre (when a woman serves in government) even though Le ministre est enceinte (the minister is pregnant) made it sound as if a man could carry a child. 

Curiously, feminism in English is going in the opposite direction to feminism in France. The former wants all performers to be called actors, whatever their gender; the latter reclaims the right to have a different word.

5: The most feminine of all concepts is described by a masculine word: 

Le vagin (the vagina) is not feminine but masculine.

Related articles

Le Petit Robert sparks debate by adding neutral pronoun to dictionary

Should the French language be changed to be made less masculine?

 

 

 

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