Unlike English, French uses two genders to make learners life a bit harder.
Essentially, each noun in French has a gender, either masculine (think ‘male’) or feminine (‘female’). Attached to nouns are articles that will take different forms according to gender.
Adjectives will take a gender (and form) corresponding to the noun they qualify. Verbs in certain cases will also take different forms depending on their subject, or sometimes their object. See examples below.
How to know which gender to use?
People and animals
The vast majority of nouns have one gender that never changes.
Anything that has a definite sex gender, as in male or female, like people or animals, will use the corresponding grammatical gender. For example, une femme (a woman), le mari (the husband), un chien (a male dog), une chienne (a female dog).
This is straightforward and unambiguous. Where it gets trickier is for objects.
Despite having no biological gender, French speakers like to think of everything as masculine or feminine.
A table, a car, a house or a chair are all feminine in French (une table, une voiture, une maison, une chaise). A wall, an airplane, a day, the Sun are masculine (un mur, un avion, un jour, le Soleil).
There is no clear reason to pick one over the other. The origins of this distinction lie in the Latin and Greek roots of the language, but even then, genders have not always been kept consistently. To put it clearly, there is no way to guess an object’s gender. So you can either learn the gender and try to remember it, or just accept that you will make mistakes, and with practice, simply get a ‘‘feeling’’ that this word or that should be masculine or feminine.
A handful of words, like amour (love) change their gender from singular (masculine for amour) to plural (feminine). Another confusing situation is that synonyms may have different genders. For example, a bicycle can be either un vélo or une bicyclette.
The good news is that picking the wrong gender for a word is virtually harmless. If you say un voiture instead of une voiture, everyone will still understand you perfectly.
Adjectives take the same gender as the name they qualify. Taking the example above, you would get
- un vélo bleu (a blue bicycle) and
- une voiture bleue (a blue car).
This straightforward rule also stands for plural. Double the examples above, and you get
- deux vélos bleus (two blue bicyles) and
- deux voitures bleues (two blue cars).
If the adjective qualifies a mix of genders, masculine gender takes over, and you would get un vélo et une voiture bleus. Note that un vélo et une voiture bleue is grammatically correct too, but in this case, only the car is blue.
Numeral adjectives are mostly the same for masculine and feminine, with the exception of one, and higher numbers ending with one. For instance, un vélo / une voiture, and vingt-et-un vélos/vingt-et-une voitures.