Nouns in French are divided into two categories. With nouns in the first
category, the word for the is le and for nouns in the second category
it is la. The two categories are generally called masculine and
feminine. The names masculine and feminine are conventional
and probably stem from the fact that some masculine nouns refer to male people
or beings, and some feminine nouns to female people or beings. But in the vast
majority of cases, there is no real relationship between a noun's meaning and
its gender. Consider, for example, that bureau and office can
have similar meanings, but the former is masculine and the latter feminine;
or that the noun personne is feminine but can refer to both men and women.
When you very first start learning French, you'll probably learn whether
a noun is masculine or feminine by learning it with the word le or
la: le garçon, la fille etc. Initially, this is
probably the most effective way of learning when to use le and when
to use la.
In other words, the answer to our question to start with is
"you've just got to remember!".
Rules and patterns for deciding on the gender of a French noun
As your proficiency in the language grows, you'll probably reach a point where
you stop learning words with the article le or la alongside. For example, if you're acquiring vocabulary through reading or watching a film, some of the time the
article won't be present. And there'll inevitably be times when you can't quite
remember the gender of a word and could do with some kind of "best guess". The following
table gives some general patterns that will help you decide whether a word is
masculine or feminine.
Nouns referring to male people.
Nouns referring to female people.
A handful of nouns are masculine, whatever the gender of the
person they refer to, e.g.: amateur, auteur, témoin,
vainqueur, voyou plus certain job titles.
These are feminine, whatever the gender of the person: personne,
victime, recrue(recruit), connaissance(acquaintance).
Certain nouns referring to animals that can refer to only the male of the species.
For example: étalon (stallion), cerf (stag), matou
Certain nouns referring to animals that can refer to only the female of the species.
For example: chatte (female cat), chienne (bitch), louve (she-wolf).
Masculine nouns that are 'generic' terms and
can refer to either a male or female of the species. For example, le cheval can
refer to either a male or female horse.
Feminine nouns that are 'generic' terms and can refer to either male or female of
the species. For example, la souris can refer to either a male or female mouse.
Names of towns. Other place names (departments, rivers, countries) not ending in -e.
Place names ending in -e.
Common exceptions: le Mexique, le Combodge, le Rhône,
le Finistère (French department), le Zimbabwe (-e pronounced).
Common exception: la Franche-Comté (French department).
Sometimes town names, especially if they look or sound
feminine (e.g. Marseilles ending in -es), can be treated as feminine.
This is quite rare, though.
Nouns ending in:
-il, -ail, -eil, -ueil
-é (but not -té)
-eau and -ou
-i, -at, -et and -ot
Words ending in other consonants (in the spelling).
Nouns ending in:
-tion, -sion and -son
Consonant followed by-ie
Most other endings consisting of Vowel + Consonant + e: -ine,
-ise, -alle, -elle, -esse, -ette etc
Nouns ending in -eur, generally derived from a verb, denoting people or machines carrying
out an activity:
aspirateur, facteur, ordinateur
Figurative nouns ending in -eur, usually derived from an adjective:
rougeur, largeur, pâleur, couleur, horreur, rumeur
Principal exceptions (look feminine but actually masculine): cimetière, episode, espace,
magazine, mille, musée, réverbère, silence,
Principal exceptions (look masculine but actually feminine): cage, eau, image,
merci, page, peau, plage
Compound nouns of the form verb-noun: porte-monnaie, pare-brise, tire-bouchon.
Common rules and patterns for deciding if a French noun is masculine or feminine.
Where there is a conflict, rules to do with a word's construction or function generally override rules
to do with the word's sound or ending. For example, pare-brise ends in the normally feminine ending
-ise, but is of the form verb-noun so is masculine. The words trompette
and clarinette have a feminine
ending, but when used to denote a person ('trumpet player' or 'clarinette player'), they are masculine.
See sections 47 onwards (pages 34 onwards) for a comprehensive list of rules determining gender plus a comprehensive list of examples and exceptions for each rule. Note that in some cases, a number of Price's are covered by a single rule in the table above.