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THE GENDER OF NOUNS

All French nouns are either masculine or feminine and, unfortunately, knowing which gender a noun is is not very straightforward. In the case of people, you can usually guess whether the name refers to a man or a woman (as is the case in the sentence above) but be aware that there are some exceptions or some names that do not have an obvious equivalent in English (the French Jean for instance is the English John, NOT Jean - it is therefore masculine!). The gender of words indicating family relations appears logical: i.e. un père, un fils (a father, a son) are masculine while une tante, une nièce (an aunt, a niece) are feminine, as indicated by the article that precedes them: un/le for masculine nouns, une/la for feminine ones (note: un/une will normally be translated as 'a' or 'an' and le/la as 'the'). However, une personne translates as 'a person' and without more information available could refer to an individual of either sex.

Things get even more confusing when it comes to objects or concepts since it is really hard to predict what gender they may be.

The item of this first picture could for instance be referred to as une/la chaise (a/the chair) or un/le fauteuil (an/the armchair) depending on the difference you make between the two.

Equally, the item on that second picture could be described either as une/la table (a/the table) or un/lebureau (a/the desk).

As you can see from the examples above, the article (a/an or the in English) will help you identify the noun's gender.French uses le (definite article) or un (indefinite article) before a masculine noun and la(definite article) or une(indefinite article) when the noun is feminine. In some cases, you will come across l' which stands in place of either le or la in front of a word starting with a vowel (l'artiste, l'alcool etc.). Unfortunately, this will give you no information whatsoever about the gender of the noun as l' can replace either le or la. In that case, you have to look for other elements in the sentence (or else look the word up in a dictionary) to find out what gender it is. For a recap on articles, have a look at the section below.

On an anecdotal matter, note that there are also some words that can work with either a masculine or feminine article, but they will then have a different meaning. For example: un vase is a vase but une vase refers to some mud; un tour is a tour while une tour is a tower. To make things even more confusing, a few words even change gender depending whether they are singular or plural; the most famous one is amour: un amour éternel (an eternal love), mes premières amours (my first love).