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In French, some nouns are considered male and some female (le/la). Is there a way which can help me understand which grammatical gender to use with which noun?

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    The question belongs to FL. Might have been already asked. – Laure Apr 5 '16 at 18:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because language-specific questions do not belong here. – OldBunny2800 Apr 5 '16 at 20:17
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    I'm voting to leave this question open because language-specific questions belong here (as long as they're about the learning process and not the language itself). – Gilles Apr 5 '16 at 20:26
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    Cross-site overlap isn't bad. If we establish that questions about learning specific languages are on-topic - and the meta discussion seems to indicate that so far, that's the consensus - there's no reason for us to move a perfectly fine question elsewhere. – HDE 226868 Apr 5 '16 at 21:51
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    I'm voting to reopen; meta discussion hasn't indicated that these questions are off-topic. Why kill them now? – HDE 226868 Apr 5 '16 at 22:05
14
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You can't, really

As I was learning French (English is my first language) the idea of gender of objects can be difficult to grasp. Genders are pretty much arbitrary and is something you just have to remember with each word (this means remembering it as "une fenêtre" rather than "fenêtre").

You can also always listen for a liaison. But usually when speaking with a fluent speaker this can be quite subtle, and difficult to listen to.

General Rules

That said, they are some general patterns which can be used to distinguish the gender of a noun but these are not rules, and are only generally followed:

  • Things originating in France tend to be feminine. e.g. une crêpe, or une pizza
  • Things originating in America tend to be masculine e.g. Un burger

BIG DISCLAIMER: These are not rules at all, these are just observations I have made.


Spelling

Nouns ending in the following tend to be masculine:

  • ge
  • le (that aren't -lle, -ole, -ale, or -ule)
  • me
  • re (that isn't -ure)
  • phe
  • age source: @bleh

Nouns ending in the following tend to be feminine:

  • on
  • é
  • eur

[source]

Feminine nouns tend to have e at the end too but many masculine nouns also have e at the end


While some genders tend to have certain endings, there isn't any definite cut and dry to determine the gender of a word without memorizing it. You can memorize some common endings though to make better guesses. This question on French.SE might provide more information on this.

  • Note that -age words are all masculine – bleh Apr 5 '16 at 19:44
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    Are you aware of papers such as those in my answer which appear to differ with your answer: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/a/90/90? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Apr 5 '16 at 20:47
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    @bleh Not all of them, only most of them. For -re, there's technically a masculine majority but just barely. Ditto for the feminine majority of . – Gilles Apr 5 '16 at 21:04
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    Where did you find that rule about “things originating in France/America”? As far as I can tell, it's completely bogus. – Gilles Apr 5 '16 at 21:06
  • @Gilles ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ just from my personal experience, I have a disclaimer on that but I guess I'll need to bold it some more. – Downgoat Apr 5 '16 at 21:07
9
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Yes; rules exist, but they predict gender mostly with at least 80% (but not 100%) accuracy.To see what the rules are, please see the Linguistics papers below.

The other answer here troubles me because it does not state all the detailed rules discovered in the Linguistics papers below, and so may discourage French learners from benefitting from rules discovered by linguists by possibly misleading them into losing hope and relying on only memorisation.

May I repeat my answer to a similar question on FSE: See

I quote from the last paragraph (from p 22 of the PDF of 24 pages above) which answers your question more optimistically:

  Gender attribution rules based on noun endings, given their reliability and systematicity, are worthy of more attention in French reference books and French L2 classrooms. The foregoing corpus-based study confirmed that predictive rules for gender attribution do exist and apply to as many as 80 per cent of the nearly 10,000 nouns included in the analysis. More importantly, classroom studies have demonstrated that gender attribution rules are both teachable and learnable. Regardless of age, L2 learners can benefit from form-focused instructional activities that promote awareness of gender attribution rules and that provide opportunities for practice in associating grammatical gender with orthographic representations of constituent rhymes of literally thousands of nouns—both animate and inanimate alike.

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Grammatical gender in French is pretty much arbitrary. There's not much to understand. Sorry.

The usual tip when learning a language with (mostly) arbitrary grammatical gender like French or German is to always learn the article with the noun. When you learn the word for car, learn “la voiture” or “une voiture”. I think I the definite article is taught more often, but it has a downside of hiding the gender if the word starts with a vowel sound: better learn “un arbre” than “l'arbre”. Make sure you understand the pronunciation of the indefinite article though: “une arme” and “un arbre” only differ by the vowel sound (and the noun itself), since the E in une is silent and the N in un is sounded due to the liaison with the following vowel.

Nouns that specifically designate male people (or animals) are masculine. Ditto for females and feminine nouns. (There are a few exceptions with professions that are traditionally gendered.) These nouns usually come in pairs, e.g. “père/mère” (father/mother), “acteur/actrice” (actor/actress), “chat/chatte” (male/female cat). With such pairs, apart from a few common words, the male and female forms differ only by a suffix, the female suffix always ends with -e, and the suffixes mostly follow the same patterns as for adjectives.

Apart from that, you can't rely on the meaning of the word. Even if two nouns are synonyms, that doesn't make it more likely that they have the same gender.

You can sometimes rely on the ending of the word. Many word endings are strongly gendered. You may want to learn the most common ones, but I'm not convinced of the effectiveness of this approach: that's one more arbitrary classification to learn, and most classes have exceptions that you'd need to learn anyway.

I think (but I have no data or personal experience to support it) that it would be more effective to learn nouns on an individual basis. Once you know a critical mass of nouns, you can start looking for patterns: if you're unsure about the gender of a noun, try to think of a few words with the same ending; if they all have the same gender then chances are that the noun you're wondering about has the same gender.

What works better than endings is suffixes. Many suffixes have a single gender. If a word is built from a stem and a suffix, then once you recognize the suffix, you know the gender of the noun. For example, -tion is exclusively a feminine suffix, so any word built with that suffix is feminine, e.g. you don't need to learn words like vasoconstriction or mobilisation to know their gender. But there are a couple of words that just happen to end with those letters (e.g. cation is not ca- + -tion, gestion is not ges- + -tion), and they can be of either gender. (In this case, recognizing the suffix also tells you the pronunciation of the word: the suffix -tion is pronounced [sjɔ̃], but the letters “tion” are otherwise pronounced [tjɔ̃].)

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On a more practical note, here is a cheat sheet for french gender, and the accompanying article suggests that "glancing at this seven-page chart every once in a while helped solidify things".

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The best way to learn the grammatical gender is by practice and by using a French dictionary where nf refers to "nom féminin" (feminine noun) and nm refers to "nom musculin" (masculine noun).

Please note that the grammatical gender is sometimes confusing. I speak French and Arabic (native language), and there are some objects which are feminine in Arabic and masculine in French e.g. airplane, and vice versa e.g. chair.

  • Could you add which "method" you propose? "Practice" is too vague. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 12 '17 at 14:56
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Practice for me is using French in a daily basis. e.g. Watching TV and movies in French, reading novels. By doing that we will be familiarized with the grammatical gender of the most used nouns. – Billel Hacaine Jan 12 '17 at 16:00

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