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Masculine and feminine in French - how do you know which one to use?

Over the last 10 years teaching French to adults I have seen and heard a lot of tactics for dealing with one of the biggest challenges we face when speaking French. That challenge is how to decide if a word is masculine or feminine?

 

One popular tactic is to say that every word ending in “e” is feminine (la). But there are far too many words that end in “e” that turn out to be masculine, making this approach difficult to use with any degree of accuracy. Another is to try to assign an actual gender to an object. So women wear dresses so “une robe” but where do you go when the word for shirt is “une chemise” and the word for beard is “une barbe”?

 

 Hold on all those words end in “e” and are feminine. That rule does work! Well it does for some but what about “un risque”, “un geste”, ” un casque”, “un degré” and so on. 

 

Of course you could just hedge your bets and begin a sentence by calling a house “une maison” and finish the sentence by referring to it as “un maison” succeeding in covering both bases and being right 50% of the time! But that sounds like too much hard work plus never really knowing if you got the right gender for a word isn’t very satisfying.

Some rules that you can rely on - Masculine and feminine in French isn't as hard as you think!

The first thing to know about whether a word is masculine or feminine in French is to know that it is depends on how a word is spelt not on its meaning.

So a question is “une question” but questionning is “un questionnement”. But why? It’s the spelling that makes the difference, words that finish with “ion” are always feminine and nouns ending in “ment” are always masculine. 


The examples below will give you some starters for ten to get you going on the path to confidently choosing the right gender for a word, even if you don’t know its meaning. To remember and fully embed these simple rules, I would suggest that you expand on the lists below by looking up and noting words from a dictionary. 


As this is French, there are bound to be exceptions to these rules if you look hard enough. Please do share your lists of words with me.

5 word endings that are always feminine

French words ending in "ion" are feminine

Une station, une profession, une communication, une télévision, une notion, une édition, une suggestion, une session, une décision etc

French words ending in "ette" are feminine

Une baguette, une trottinette, une mobylette, une étiquette, une musette, une sucette, une pipelette, une pirouette, une maquette, les toilettes, une fourchette, une serviette etc

French words ending in "esse" are feminine

La tristesse, la fesse, la finesse, la jeunesse, la duchesse

French words ending in "rie" are feminine

La boulangerie, la papeterie, l’épicerie, la librairie, la poissonerie, la connerie, la déchetterie, la drôlerie etc

French words ending in "ique" are feminine

La dynamique, la logique, la diagnostique, la péripherique, la technique, la syntechnique. la numerique etc

5 word endings that are always masculine

French words ending in "isme" are masculine

Le cyclisme, le culturalism, le féminisme, le capitalisme, l’héroisme, le conventionalisme, le communisme, le nationalisme etc

French words ending in "age" are masculine

le village, le montage, le sondage, le sabotage, le bronzage, le camouflage, l’emballage, le gonflage, le jardinage, le langage etc

But there are exceptions – la plage, une image

French words ending in "aire" are masculine

Un millionaire, le nucléaire, un célibataire, un funiculaire, un fonctionnaire, un secrétaire, un gestionnaire etc

French words ending in "eau" are masculine

Un bureau, un drapeau, un bateau, un oiseau, un couteau, un réseau, le carreau

French words ending in "ment" are masculine

Le gouvernement, le monument, le médicament, le moment, le logement, le comportement, le soulagement, le remplacement etc

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