This article is written by one of the language teachers at italki
In French, every noun has a gender: masculine or feminine. A bottle is a girl, a glass is a boy (une bouteille, un verre). Even countries have genders! France is feminine, Canada is masculine, I kid you not.
This "sexualisation" of basically everything may seem weird, like a form of sexual obsession. It is not. Word genders are not determined by the look of things.
In some cases, word genders are not determined by actual genders either. The best way to illustrate this is by looking at animals. In French, some animals are always "she," among them giraffes, mice, frogs and bats (une girafe, une souris, une grenouille, une chauve-souris).
But, the vast majority of animals are always "he," including bears, butterflies and pheasants (un ours, un papillon, un faisan). This quirk goes against anything taught in biology (how can there be only female mice, how do they reproduce?), so I take this as hard evidence that word genders are not a kind of sexual obsession.
Far from being a dirty thing, for me, word genders are like giving a soul to everything. For example, next to me there is a cup and a pencil. It's not just "a cup and a pencil", it's “une tasse et un crayon”. Mrs cup and Mr pencil!
You may find yourself shaking your head in despair at the prospect of getting to grips with this, but the point is that genders are not optional in French. If you ignore them, you will never sound French and even your most basic sentences will sound painful to the ear of a native speaker.
Also, the best time to learn them is right from the start. Get into the habit of learning the correct gender for each new word you add to your vocabulary. Not doing so will mean you’ll face massive problems down the line. I once met a guy who had a formidable French vocabulary, but knew no genders because he thought they were trivial. When he discovered the error of his ways, he was in a position of having to learn thousands of genders at once. Daunting! So learn from him, tack the article "un" or "une" in front of every new word you learn. Don't use "le" and "la" because this causes two separate issues, and it takes far longer to lose a bad habit.
Here's how it works:
1) Word endings
Word genders are actually decided by the sound of words, and what matters is the word’s ending. However, it's not as simple as saying "it finishes with an 'e', therefore it is feminine", as about half the words that end with the letter "e" are masculine. Let's see some examples:
- Something finishing in "ette" has to be feminine. Think of it as the most feminine-sounding word ending. In comparison, words finishing in "et" (with an ending sounding like "è") sound masculine.
- Words finishing in "ier" (pronounce is as "yay") are masculine. Un escalier," "un chandelier," and so on; whereas words ending in "ière" (pronounce it as "yair") are feminine. "Une bière," "une cafetière," etc.
- Words made up of two parts - one of which been a verb - are usually masculine. "Un lave-vaisselle", "un grille-pain."
There are many more typical masculine and feminine endings and you should try to learn them as it will allow you to guess word genders with a fairly large degree of accuracy. There is some order to the chaos, but let me warn you, unfortunately there’s also a great number of exceptions.
You are now aware that every noun has a gender, but this is not the end of it. Adjectives color themselves too. You have to coordinate them with the noun they are describing (like matching shoes with an outfit!). We do this by adding an "e" to the adjective, but not all the time.
For example, if a word finishes with a plain 'e' already, you don't add another 'e'. Two plain 'e's in a row is unheard of in French; 'ée' is ok though. Think of the differently accented ‘e’s as different letters that behave in different ways. There is a bit more to it, but I don't want to enter in all in the exceptions at this point.
Let me illustrate the rule with an example: "green" is "vert" in French (pronounce it "vair"). The feminine spelling of this quality is "verte" (pronounced "vairt"). If I say "a green hat, a green dress", it would be:
- un chapeau vert, une robe verte
If there are several adjectives, all of them need to match the thing they describe. Let me give you an example. Beautiful is "beau" in the masculine form, and "belle" in the feminine form. Big is "grand" in the masculine form (pronounce "gran") and "grande" in the feminine form (pronounce it "grand"). So "a big beautiful blue bottle" is:
- une belle grande bouteille bleue
a) Verbs with "to be"
There's more. If a verb is conjugated with "être" as an auxiliary in the verb tense called passé composé (or plus-que-parfait or passé antérieur, but these are used less frequently) you need to coordinate the second part of the verb (participe passé).
First, let me explain how it works, then I'll tell you when it applies. One of the verbs subject to this rule is "aller" (to go). If I say "Marc went to the cinema" and "Marie went to the cinema", the verb will be spelled differently:
- Marc est allé au cinéma.
- Marie est allée au cinéma.
Here is a list of verbs that always use "être" in passé composé :
Here is a trick to remember them: "DR & MRS VAN DER TRAMP" is an acronym!
Verbs that require pronouns also use "être" in passé composé. This rule applies to both verbs than need a pronoun only sometimes and those that need one all the time. For example "se souvenir":
- Antoine s'est souvenu.
- Anna s'est souvenue.
This whole thing makes it impossible to write a French book about a person with a unisex name, like Alex, who poses as a boy and then, in a dramatic ending, reveals him/herself to be a woman. In French, there are tell-tale signs everywhere. It must have been a real challenge to adapt Boys Don't Cry and Yentl into French …
b) Verbs with "to have"
Just when you start to think you brain will melt, there is just a bit more to take in. Take a deep breath. Verbs with "avoir" as an auxiliary also need to be conjugated if the complement is before the verb.
A complement, often referred to as a C.O.D. in boring grammar books, is the answer to the question "what?". You ask this question immediately after the verb. So, in a sentence like, "I eat an apple", you should ask: I eat what? The answer is "an apple", the word apple is the complement.
Let me explain this last rule. "I eat an apple" in passé composé is :
- J'ai mangé une pomme. The complement is after the verb, like usual, so no sweat, we don't conjugate that one.
But, if instead I had written "The apple I eat…" it would be:
La pomme que j'ai mangée…
I eat what? An apple. The word “apple” comes before the verb so I need to coordinate it with the word gender of the word “apple,” which is feminine.
I think it's fair to ask if this gender-ification of words is chivalry or a burden?
It appears to be a burden, lumbering you with tables of endings to learn, forcing you to read twice what you write in order to accessorize all the adjectives, and it's an even bigger challenge for females as our essays written in the "I" form need special attention to all the past participles.
But all in all, I think it's chivalry that has lead to it. It acknowledges the difference, and the specialness, of the female. It also colors the world we live in. If English is a drab grey, French is daubed in bright shades of pink and blue.