French adjective agreement in more detail

In our introduction to the form of French adjectives, we mentioned that, for example, an -e is usually added in the spelling of an adjective in the feminine, and -s in the plural. But we didn't delve too deeply into how to decide if you need the feminine and/or plural form of the adjective in the first place: we just assumed that the adjective would be used alongside exactly one noun, and that the gender and number of the adjective would agree with that single noun.

Well, it becomes obvious that this is too simple. For example, supposing you want to say interesting films and plays. The French word film is masculine, but the word or expression pièce (de théâtre) (the French for "play" in the theatrical sense) is feminine. What agreement should we put on the adjective intéressant? Similarly, if we want to say a red pen and pencil (where both items are red), do we make the adjective singular or plural (and again, which word do we make it agree with)?

On this page, we explore adjective agreement issues of this type.

Multiple nouns with a single adjective

When one adjective is attributed to two or more nouns (or noun phrases), the adjective is generally placed in the plural as you might expect. More specifically:

  • if the nouns are conjoined by et, the adjective is generally always plural;
  • if the nouns are conjoined by words that imply an alternative to some degree (such as ou, ni, voire, or simply a comma), then the choice of singular or plural depends on the sense, and generally on whether the nouns are intended to be synonyms or express different concepts.

The case of nouns joined by et is generally the easiest. In this case, the adjective is generally always pluralised, provided that the adjective is genuinely intended to apply to both nouns:

le cinéma et le théâtre américains
American cinema and theatre
Un stylo et un crayon rouges.
A red pen and pencil
Il portait une chemise et une cravate blanches.
He was wearing a white shirt and tie.
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As a side issue, recall how in English, it is common for articles such as a, the to apply to more than one noun, whereas in French, it is more usual to repeat le, la, les, un(e), des, before both nouns, as in these examples.

If all conjoined nouns have the same gender, then the gender of the adjective follows that of the nouns (so above, blanches is feminine because both chemise and cravate are feminine). If their genders differ, then in careful writing at least, the noun is made masculine. For example:

les films et pièces comiques
comedy films and plays
une chemise et un pantalon blancs
a white shirt and trousers
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Nouns conjoined by ou, ni, voire etc

The use of a singular or plural adjective in these cases tends to depend on whether an alternative is strictly implied. The words ou and ni (as with English or, (neither...) nor) don't actually imply in alternative in many cases. For example, if we say:

He didn't have the necessary skills or experience.
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in reality, we could more or less replace or with and without changing the meaning very much: whether you say "or" or "and", both skills and experience are understood to be necessary. The same goes in French, so that in practice, a plural adjective is common with nouns conjoined with ou or ni:

Il n'avait ni la compétence ni l'expérience nécessaires.
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On the other hand, if the nouns are considered equivalent to one another (i.e. they're synonyms), then a singular adjective is common, agreeing with the last noun. This can typically happen with ou or voire (the equivalent of "indeed", "if not" as in charm if not beauty, difficult if not impossible), and also with a list if nouns separated simply by a comma, suggesting a "development" of a description:

un charme, (voire/ou) une beauté exceptionnelle
exceptional charm, (if not/or) beauty
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Multiple adjectives with a plural noun implying repetition of a singular

If we consider cases such as:

in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
the French and German economies
the Christian and Muslim faiths
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in reality, these are equivalent to conjoined singular phrases:

in the thirteenth century and the fourteenth century
the French economy and the German economy
the Christian faith and the Muslim faith
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In such cases, the noun and articles are placed in the plural in French, but each adjective is placed in the singular:

aux treizième et quatorzième siècles
les économies française et allemande
les religions chrétienne et musulmane
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Avoiding gender "clash"

In principle, the above rules mean there are cases where you can end up with a masculine adjective directly following a feminine noun. For example, translating white trousers and shirt with the same noun order as English gives:

un pantalon et une chemise blancs
white trousers and shirt
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Whilst strictly speaking, the previous phrase is grammatical, it sounds slightly odd to have an obviously feminine noun followed directly by an obviously masculine adjective. Careful writers can generally avoid this case with one of two strategies:

  • change the order of the nouns, so that a masculine noun appears directly next to the adjective;
  • repeat the adjective with each noun, in the appropriate gender (e.g. un pantalon blanc et une chemise blanche in this case).

The second of these strategies, while repetitious, has the example of making it completely explicit that the adjective describes both nouns (whereas if you say une chemise et un pantalon blancs, to the ear, this sounds identical to une chemise et un pantalon blanca shirt and white trousers).

On the other hand, where there is no pronunciation difference between the masculine and feminine form, having the (masculine) adjective directly after a feminine noun appears more acceptable.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.