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Gender of Words in French

Updated: Feb 17

One of the most difficult things for non-Natives is to figure out the gender of words in French.

First, a lot of people struggle with the fact that objets do have a gender in Latine languages.

Indeed, a sandwich is masculine, but a car is feminine. A train is masculine, but a motorcycle is feminine.

As I always say, acceptance is essential in the learning process. The constant "Why? It does not make any sense!" does not lead anywhere besides more frustration.

As a Native French who studied for many years Spanish and Italian, I feel like these two languages are more straight forward in clearly identifying the gender as their endings often reveal the answer.

la chica, la niña, la muchacha, el chico, el niño, el muchacho

la ragazza, il ragazzo

in French, la fille, le garçon

How to deal with the difficulty?

One must memorize the gender of each word as they learn the language no matter if they are French Natives or learning it as a foreign language.

Methodology is key in helping your brain quickly categorizing words. For that reason, I always recommend my students to use color codes per gender and stick to them all the way through your studies. Visual memory is key as your brain will take "photos" of your flashcards. To reinforce your studying method, use an address book and convert it as a vocabulary book. Use the alphabet to index your words. Choose to classify your words in French or English and keep it this way. As you learn French, write your words using your gender color code. Keep in black words with no gender such as verbs, prepositions...

A glimpse of hope?

O.K. I can give you some imperfect rules to help you. Imagine one mixes one's expertise in French lexicology and in statistics, they end up with lists of words, study them to extract from them rules.

These lists could be formed by theme or endings of words. One list could be feminine at 88% when another one at 92%. Consequently, they are imperfect rules, but students in French love them.

Words ending in -eau, -o, -age, -isme tend to be masculine.

Words ending in -ion, -ette, -esse or -té (note the accent aigu as it is key here) tend to be feminine.

Words borrowed from English tend to be masculine, but words borrowed from Spanish and Italian tend to keep their native gender.

Days, Seasons, materials, trees are often masculine.

Moral qualities and arts are feminine. An easy way to remember is to recall the European paintings on which concepts such as Justice, Liberty, Arts are represented by a woman.

Attention! The French language is tricky. Forms of art (music, painting, sculpture...) are feminine, but the word art itself is masculine. Each season is masculine, but the word saison is feminine.

(Remember when I mentioned acceptance is key?!)

Languages are masculine. If they are used as adjectives, they keep the gender of the. noun they refer to: Sophie is French. Sophie est française (feminine).

Most fruits are feminine with exceptions like apricot, grapefruit, pineapple, lemon, kiwi...

Right now, you may be thinking "Wait a minute! Fruits are feminine.but fruit trees are masculine?". Yes, you are correct: une pomme (an apple), un pommier (an apple tree).

une cerise (a cherry), un cerisier (a cherry tree)

une banane (a banana), un bananier (a banana tree)

(Notice here the pattern: the fruit tree/plant + -ier)

Popular mistakes students do

Do not think that a word ending with an -e is automatically feminine. This works for adjectives, not nouns.

Paul est petit. Sophie est petite.

Paul est grand. Sophie est grande.

I often hear students thinking it not a big deal if the gender they use is incorrect. This is a big mistake.

First, it will slow your ability to be understood. In a couple of sentences, not that much, but as one gets more advanced in the language and speaks a lot, constant gender mistakes will lower the attention ability of the French Native listening to you.

Gender will impact the grammar and the pronunciation in your sentence. Consequently, the quality of your French spoken and written will drastically drop.

La petite kiwi est verte. (the little kiwi is green)

Kiwi is masculine. When you use it feminine, you make, not only 3 written mistakes, but also three pronunciation errors that will overstimulate the Native speaker's ear.

As one learns a new language, one is always eager to move fast on the basics of the foreign language. Many advertisements make students believe French can be learnt and spoken in a few weeks. Let me tell you. Nobody can enjoy living in a house built on instable foundations. Soon or later, taking down the house and rebuild from scratch will have to be done. The same applies for the learning process.

Accept that a lot of things are not logical in terms of languages.

Take your time to build strong foundations.

Have fun with it. It will speed up your memorization process and stimulate your desire to learn more.

Je suis Stéphanie, a real French Native teacher. B.A. in English. M.A. in French

Owner of My Private French Class

Community college professor.

  • My Private French Class, Grammar & Conjugation, Level 1

  • My French Passport, Reading and Comprehension, Levels 1 & 2

  • MY French Word Search Puzzles, Les Vacances

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