Feminine, or masculine?
That is the question you often ask yourself as a French learner.
After hours trying to figure out why féminisme (feminism) is masculine and masculinité (masculinity) is feminine, you’ve come to the most logical conclusion: the gender of French nouns was randomly chosen by a bunch of sadistic linguists.
Actually, this is somewhat correct, as we’ll see a little later in this article!
Still, whether there’s logic to them or not, genders are a part of the French language and understanding French gender rules is essential when it comes to speaking and writing correctly.
But with genders attributed to words in a way that seems completely arbitrary, how can you ever learn the genders of every French noun?
You may have heard that there is only one way to know the gender of a noun: to learn it by heart. Luckily this is one of many myths about the French language. You can actually know the gender of a French noun with more than 80% accuracy just by looking at its ending.
Let’s explore why genders exist in the French language, why they’re important, and how you can finally be sure of which gender to use a vast majority of the time.
Why are there genders in French?
French isn’t the only language whose nouns have genders, and masculine and feminine aren’t the only possible genders for nouns in certain other languages. For example, in German, there’s a third gender: neuter. Many languages group nouns by whether they’re animate or inanimate. “Gender” is still the term used for this kind of classification, though.
Interestingly, while we tend to think of English as a language without genders, that’s not completely true. Although English nouns may not be gendered, people and their corresponding pronouns are. Some other languages, like Turkish and Basque, don’t designate gender at all.
Why do some languages have gendered nouns, while others don’t? No matter how much research you do or how many linguistics classes you take in college (trust me), you’ll never get a definitive answer to this. From what we know about ancient texts and fragments of words, as well as by trying to reconstruct primitive languages based on modern-day language families, it seems that humans began by classifying nouns as living or not living. This may have had practical, as well as religious, purposes.
It’s thought that as time went on and religion became more organized and, in most places, less animistic, gender seemed like a good way to keep nouns organized. Why organizing nouns into general groups seemed necessary, and why certain nouns that would seem inherently masculine or feminine fall into the completely opposite category, is still uncertain.
So, yes, this does all mean that French noun genders are completely arbitrary in many cases. You can vent your frustration with a scream if you’d like, or maybe a French swear word.
Why French genders matter
Regardless of their unclear and arbitrary origin, you can’t master French if you don’t master French genders.
In French, gender has an influence on:
- The article you use before a noun
- The ending of adjectives and verbs
- The meaning of certain words
You’ll discover how genders influence these elements in the last section of this article. But before you do, here’s how to easily know the gender of French words.
The 80/20 of French gender rules
There are many approaches to learning the genders of French nouns. But I’ve got news for you: Even native French speakers occasionally have trouble with it! In a 2008 study , native French speakers were asked to determine the gender of 93 words (which it turns out were all masculine). They could only agree on the gender of 17 of those! And they had even more trouble when it came to a list of feminine words.
Fortunately, there are methods that you can use to learn, memorize, and guess the genders of French nouns. Choose the right one for you and you’ll get them right a vast majority of the time.
The method that’s been shown to be the most effective is….
Guess the gender based on the word’s ending
According to a study by McGill University (PDF), a noun’s ending indicates its gender in 80% of cases . Based on this study, here is a list of typically masculine and typically feminine noun endings.
Nouns with these endings were found to be of the same gender in more than 90% of cases.
Unless you really like memorizing lists, I don’t recommend you learn these endings by heart, since the process would be extremely boring. Instead, bookmark this page and regularly look at the list. Or print it out and hang it somewhere you often linger – for example, beside your bathroom mirror, by the sink where you wash the dishes, or even by your toilet.
After a while, you’ll see that you can intuitively guess the gender of a noun based on its ending.
French Together founder and genuinely nice guy Benjamin Houy has created a simplified list that’s easier to remember. You’ll find it below this first list.
Typically masculine noun endings (+90%)
- -an, -and, -ant, -ent, -in, -int, -om, -ond, -ont, -on (but not after s/c¸)
- -eau, -au, -aud, -aut, -o, -os, -ot
- -ai, -ais, -ait, -es, -et
- -ou, -out, -out, -oux
- -i, -il, -it, -is, -y
- -at, -as, -ois, -oit
- • -u, -us, -ut, -eu
- -er, -é after C (C=t)
- -age, -ege, – ème, -ome, -aume, -isme
- -as, -is, -os, -us, -ex
- -it, -est
- -al, -el, -il, -ol, -eul, -all
- -if, -ef
- -ac, -ic, -oc, -uc
- -am, -um, -en
- -air, -er, -erf, -ert, -ar, -arc, -ars, -art, -our, -ours, -or, -ord, -ors, -ort, -ir, -oir, -eur
- -ail, -eil, -euil, -ueil
Typically feminine noun endings (+90%)
- -aie, -oue, -eue, -ion, -te, – ée, -ie, -ue
- -asse, -ace, -esse, -ece, -aisse, -isse/-ice, -ousse, -ance, -anse, -ence, -once
- -enne, -onne, -une, -ine, -aine, -eine, -erne
- -ande, -ende, -onde, -ade, -ude, -arde, -orde
- -euse, -ouse, -ase, -aise, -ese, -oise, -ise, -yse, -ose, -use
- -ache, -iche, -eche, -oche, -uche, -ouche, -anche
- -ave, -eve, -ive
- -iere, -ure, -eure
- -ette, -ete, – ête, -atte, -otte, -oute, -orte, -ante, -ente, -inte, -onte
- -alle, -elle, -ille, -olle
- -aille, -eille, -ouille
- -appe, -ampe, -ombe
- • -igue
A simplified list of endings
The previous list has the advantage of being exhaustive, but as French Together reader Amosnliz notes in the comment section, you can learn with a simplified, shorter list.
While there is no precise data available, you can consider that you’ll be right 80% of the time if you use this simplified list.
Feminine noun endings
- The majority of words that end in -e or -ion.
- Except words ending in -age, -ege, -é, or -isme (these endings often indicate masculine words).
Masculine noun endings
Most words with other endings are masculine.
Other ways to learn and remember the gender of French words
When it comes to learning genders in French, I feel like I’m living proof of what the McGill study found. My French teachers in school made us memorize endings that are typically masculine or feminine, and that has continued to help me through my years of learning French and becoming fluent.
But maybe this method doesn’t work for you. You might not be good at or like to memorize long lists, or you may find it easier to memorize things in a different, less straightforward way. Luckily, there are many other strategies you can use to memorize genders in French. Some of the most popular are:
Memorize new French words with an article
You’ve probably come across lists of French vocabulary with a definite or indefinite article in front of each word. Although French people don’t use articles every single time they say a word, memorizing words along with an article is a very easy way to ingrain in your memory if a word is masculine and feminine. And as you start memorizing words this way, you may notice that certain types of words tend to be one gender or another, which will give you more of a chance of guessing, if you ever have to. Personally, although the endings method is the one I’ve found the most useful, I’ve always tried to memorize vocabulary with an article, as well.
Memorize categories of words that are typically masculine or feminine
Although learning word endings that tend to be masculine or feminine is a more all-encompassing method, learning categories that are commonly masculine or feminine can be pretty helpful, too. Of course, not everything can be neatly put into a category that has all or mostly masculine or feminine nouns, but there are a decent amount of categories out there, and maybe, as you learn French, you’ll notice patterns and come up with categories that make sense and work for you, in addition to the established ones.
Remember that if a word in a particular category has another meaning, the gender of that second meaning probably won’t be the same (we’ll talk more about this a little later on). So, for example, orange is masculine when it’s a color and feminine when it’s a fruit.
Here are some categories of French words that are typically masculine:
- cheeses (although there are some exceptions, usually involving the description of the form of the cheese, for example, la tomme, une brique)
- metric units
- numbers (note that the numeric concept that ends in -aine (=about this much, this decade of a person’s life, is feminine (la quarantaine, une cinquaiantaine de personnes))
- days of the week
Here are some categories of French words that are typically feminine:
- brand names of cars
- brand names of watches
- names of rivers
- sciences and other domains of learning (la science, l’histoire, la chimie, etc.). Le droit (the law) is one notable exception to this rule.
As you can see, these categories don’t cover every subject in the French language, so this method should be used with another one to be able to guess a word’s gender with accuracy. But it can be a very helpful way to quickly guess the gender of words that do fall into these categories, or if you’re working with these categories (say, talking about the colors of a painting), you’ll know you can keep the gender the same.
Pay attention when you watch, read, and listen to French
This is another strategy that has helped me quite a bit. If you hear or see a word with its article enough, or hear/see it used with adjectives, you’ll become accustomed to it being associated with a gender.
For instance, I used to babysit a little French boy who loved to sing the French lullaby “Au Clair de la lune”. I quickly picked it up, and we’d sing it every afternoon. I got used to associating the nouns in the song with the words around them that signified their gender. For example, la lune, ta plume, un mot, ta porte.
It’s been years since I babysat that little boy, and years since I’ve been speaking French, so when I say or write those words today, the song doesn’t necessarily come to mind, but there was a time when it did for some of them!
So, if you like music, poetry, books, movies, TV series – just about anything that can let you hear/see and become familiar with French words in situ, this is a great way to supplement your French word gender knowledge.
Associate each gender with a vivid image
If none of these other strategies speak to you, here’s another that’s often recommended: Instead of simply learning each word and its gender by heart, it can be smart to associate each gender with an action in your mind.
You could imagine, for example, that masculine nouns fall into water while feminine nouns are eaten by a monster. Associating each noun with such a vivid image helps you remember its gender more easily.
The association needs to be personal, since it has to be something you will easily remember. For example, If you love to sing, you could sing each word with a different tone depending on its gender.
How to learn and practice French noun gender
One easy way to keep up what you’ve learned about genders in French is to choose a word, guess if it’s masculine or feminine, then look it up online or in a print dictionary to check if you’re right. If you’re not, try saying or writing the word with its masculine or feminine article a few times. You may also want to check if it belongs on the list of typically masculine or feminine word endings.
Want more practice, or different ways to practice? This article includes a great list of French word gender games you can play on your own or with a group.
French gender rules explained
Now you know how to identify the gender of French nouns. Now let’s see why knowing the gender of French words is so important.
Here are the most important grammatical elements in French that change based on genders.
In French, you have a masculine “the” (le) and a feminine “the” (la). Good news – there’s a plural “the” (les), but it stays the same for groups/things of either gender.
Similarly, you have a masculine “a” (un) and a feminine “a” (une). Another bit of good news: As with les, the plural form of “a” in French, des, stays the same whether you’re using it with masculine or feminine nouns.
Finally, while you say “some”, as in “a portion/piece of”, you need to make the distinction between du (masculine) and de la (feminine) in French.
As in English, pronouns change depending on the subject’s gender.
he = il
she = elle
Note that these pronouns aren’t just used with people, but with any noun, since they all have genders. For example: Nadine est si gentille. Elle m’a prêté sa voiture pour la journée. (Nadine is so kind. She let me borrow her car for the day.) OR J’en ai marre de cette chaise ! Elle n’est vraiment pas confortable. (I’m sick of this chair ! It’s really uncomfortable!)
Unlike English, there are two ways to say “they” in French:
elles (feminine subject)
ils (masculine subject)
Note that in French, masculine nouns take precedence over feminine ones. There’s a sad little trick to the French language regarding gender: No matter how many feminine nouns you have, if there’s just one masculine one, it takes precedence.
À la cantine, Daniel a choisi une pomme, une soupe, et un sandwich. Ils sont tous sur son plateau.
At the cafeteria, Daniel chose an apple, a bowl of soup, and a sandwich. They’re all on his tray.
Notice that despite the first two items being feminine, because un sandwich is masculine, the entire group is referred to with ils , the masculine plural pronoun.
This is also the case when you’re talking about people and other living things:
Cléa, Hélène, Rose, et Paul aiment les films. Ils vont au cinéma chaque semaine.
Cléa, Hélène, Rose, and Paul like movies. They go to the cinema every week.
As you can see, even though most of the people here are female, just one male means you have to use the pronoun ils when you talk about the group.
French adjectives change based on the gender and number of the noun they modify. This means the adjective is either:
- Masculine singular
- Feminine singular
- Masculine plural
- Feminine plural
Let’s take several adjectives as examples. These are adjectives you can use to guess how other adjectives with similar endings will change.
Masculine singular: content
Feminine singular: contente
Masculine plural: contents
Feminine plural: contentes
Masculine singular: fatigué
Feminine singular: fatiguée
Masculine plural: fatigués
Feminine plural: fatiguées
Masculine singular: bon
Feminine singular: bonne
Masculine plural: bons
Feminine plural: bonnes
Read 13 common French mistakes that’ll make you feel awkward before you use this adjective.
Of course, some words change very little when it comes to the noun they’re modifying. If they have an “e” at the end already, the letter stays for masculine nouns as well as feminine ones. For example:
Masculine singular: triste
Feminine singular: triste
Masculine plural: tristes
Feminine plural: tristes
There are exceptions, but if you know these patterns, you’ll know how most adjectives change based on the gender of the noun they modify.
And remember the French rule of masculine words always having dominance over feminine ones. In this case, if you’re talking about a group of nouns and just one person/thing is masculine, the adjective you use to describe the group will be masculine, as well.
Claire, Donald, Céline, Christine, et Roger étaient tous fatigués.
Claire, Donald, Céline, Christine, et Roger were all tired.
The passé composé tense is the most striking example of the influence of genders and number on conjugation, although any verb tense that uses an auxiliary verb can be influenced by the gender and number of the subject.
When it comes to the passé composé, for example, when you conjugate a verb with the auxiliary être, the past participle must agree with the subject’s gender (and number).
Here, for instance, is the verb aller conjugated in the passé composé:
Je suis allé(e)
Tu es allé(e)
Il/elle est allé(e)
Nous sommes allé(e)s
Vous êtes allé(e)(s)
Ils/elles sont allé(e)s
As you can see, the verb changes based on the subject’s number and gender. This is also true for other compound tenses.
In addition, verb agreement is a “must” when a verb conjugated with avoir is a direct object. For example, Voici la robe que tu as achetée pour Juliette.
These differences are only noticeable in written French since the pronunciation remains the same.
The meaning of certain words
In certain cases, gender can be used to clarify the meaning of a word with two very distinct definitions.
For example, the word voile in French can either mean a sail or a veil. In a genderless language like English, we’d just rely on the context to know which one was being talked about. But French people decided to use gender to be sure that the meaning is clear. So, une voile is a sail and un voile is a veil. Voilà – no confusion! Except for non-native speakers who would inherently expect a veil, an accessory typically worn by females, to be the feminine one….
Luckily there aren’t a huge number of French words with different meanings in different genders. You can find a pretty thorough list of them here, although note that this source also includes homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently), which don’t exactly pose the same challenge.
Have feminism and the gender equality movement had an effect on the French language?
Regardless of your gender, if you’re someone who wants equality for everyone (a.k.a. a decent human being), the fact that, in French, masculine nouns take precedence over feminine ones may bum you out a little.
You could say, “They’re just words.” But the truth is, the logic behind this rule was probably that males are more important and powerful than females. The French love of classifying things and making them concise means that you couldn’t have adjectives/verbs/pronouns that agree with both genders, so one had to be chosen, and the one that was chosen was the gender that had the most power at the time: masculine.
Luckily, French law today considers male and female citizens equal, with equal rights. Socially speaking, however, I personally find that it depends. In my own experience, I find that younger generations are much more open to gender equality, not just in theory but in practice. For example, older generations may not think men should help with household chores, but many of the younger Frenchmen I know do help with chores, as well as taking care of and spending one-on-one time with their children.
You can see some signs of social change in in the French language itself. For example, traditionally, jobs like teachers and writers were only used with masculine nouns. But nowadays, you can choose to make them feminine, like so: une professeur/une prof (a (female) teacher); une écrivain (or une écrivaine, especially in Canadian French) (a female writer).
Many other professions can now also be feminized, since the concept has been officially recognized by the Académie Française (a ruling that was only made in 2019).
Sadly, some other jobs, like un médecin (a doctor) only take the masculine pronoun. So, even if you go to a female doctor, she would be referred to as un médecin. That means that not only do concepts that may reinforce gender stereotypes persist in the language used for some French professions; unpredictable gender rules do, too.
Interestingly, this isn’t the case in all forms of French. For instance, in Canadian French, une médecin and une docteure are used, and doctoresse is used in Swiss and Belgian French.
This being said, there are some feminists and activists who think that feminizing a profession is sexist unto itself and that all professions in French should simply be a single word, not two separate, male and female versions. You can compare this to the way the word “actor” is being used more and more frequently to describe both males and females with this profession in the Anglophone world.
Other than these changes, when it comes to gender in the French language, not much has happened in terms of everyday vocabulary and grammar. Not that this isn’t understandable; imagine trying to change a language in such a massive way.
Still, nothing’s impossible – or, as the French like to say, impossible n’est pas français. There’s a linguistic theory that as languages evolve, they become less complex. You can see this, for example, in the case of English, which did have genders in its older forms, as well as a formal and informal “you”. So, one day French words may not have genders at all. No matter how you feel about gender equality, that has to make you feel good for future learners of French!
The gender of words in French – as well as their grammatical and social implications – can be complicated. If there’s only one thing you take away from this article, it should be that the majority of words ending in -e or -ion are feminine while words with other endings are mostly masculine. This won’t hold true 100% of the time, but you’re much more likely to be right if you follow this rule than if you simply guess.
What about you? How do you determine the gender of new French nouns you encounter? Share your thoughts in the comments section!