One of the first challenges facing English-speaking learners of French is the concept that all French nouns, whether referring to living beings or not, are either “masculine” or “feminine” in gender. These terms are grammatical ones and are not equivalent to the terms “male” and “female”, although the ideas may overlap in certain cases, such as un homme – a man, is masculine and une femme – a woman, is feminine. With the vast majority of nouns the masculine or feminine gender either has no connection with sex, or, in the case of inanimate objects, it is applied to nouns which cannot be considered as male or female, such as un stylo – a pen and une chaise – a chair.
How, therefore, do we tackle the problem of learning and remembering which gender a noun happens to be? Here are a few tips:
1. When you learn a new noun, try to learn it with an accompanying word, such as the Article or an adjective, which shows its gender by its sound or spelling.
e.g. Do not learn just maison = house, but une maison = a house.
e.g. Do not learn just savon = soap, but le savon = the soap.
e.g. Do not learn just eau = water, but de l’eau chaude = hot water.
e.g. Do not learn just habits = clothes, but des habits blancs = white clothes.
2. Certain groups of nouns are likely to be masculine or feminine based on their meaning.
e.g. With a few exceptions, trees and shrubs are mainly masculine, e.g. un arbre, un pommier, un orme etc.
e.g. With a few exceptions, flowers, fruit and vegetables ending in -e are feminine, e.g. une rose, une pomme, une carotte etc.
e.g. Names of countries and rivers not ending in -e are generally masculine, e.g. le Danemark, le Canada, le Japon, le Rhin etc.
e.g. Names of countries and rivers ending in -e are generally feminine, e.g. la France, la Pologne, la Chine, la Loire etc.
e.g. Names of languages tend to be masculine, e.g. l’anglais, le russe, le latin etc.
e.g. Names of arts, trades, sciences, school subjects tend to be feminine, e.g. la peinture, la menuiserie, la chimie, les maths etc.
e.g. The days of the week, the months and the seasons are all masculine: le dimanche, le lundi, le janvier, le juillet, le printemps, l’hiver etc.
e.g. The names of festivals tend to be feminine, e.g. la Toussaint, la Saint-Jean, except for Noël, which is masculine.
3. Certain endings of nouns tend to indicate whether a noun is masculine or feminine:
e.g. Nouns ending in -acle, -age, -eau, -ème, -isme, and -ment tend to be masculine, with a few exceptions.
e.g. Nouns ending in -aison, -ance, -anse, -ence, -ense, -ée, -sion, -tion, -xion tend to be feminine, with a few exceptions.
4. After a certain time learning French, you will start to get a “feel” for the language and whether a noun is masculine or feminine. Until then, I’m afraid you just have to learn them off by heart! But remember, most of the time if you get the gender wrong, it will not interfere with the meaning of what you are trying to convey, so try not to worry about it too much!