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Some basic French: les noms et les articles

by Bernard O'Shea

It’s not surprising that most grammar books on Romance languages start off with explanations of with nouns in the singular and plural and the definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a/an”). They are the basic building blocks of language learning, along with regular and irregular verb conjugation. 

Those people whose first language is English have to grasp some different grammatical concepts when they study Romance languages. First they will have to get their heads around the fact that nouns are either masculine or feminine.

What gender Is your country?

(Photo: Wikipedia)

The map to the right, for example, shows which countries, according to the French language, are macho and which are girly. Countries with masculine names in the French language are green, those with feminine names are purple.

There is probably some linguistic logic to it. According to one of my French grammar books, those countries that end in a mute “e” are feminine (la France, for example), whereas those that do not end in a mute e are masculine (le Mexique, for example). Who would have thought that mute es could be so influential. The same also applies to rivers (le Rhin, la Seine)

Some romance languages have neuter nouns as well as masculine and feminine ones.

In my Romance languages the grammatical articles and adjectives have to agree with nouns in gender and number. Thus, to master these languages you have to learn heaps of rules off by heart. And just to make it more challenging, in every language there will always be exceptions to the rule. Still, it seems to me the French have managed to keep these things relatively simple, or maybe I feel that way just because French was the first foreign language I studied at school, so the concepts are pretty ingrained. See what you think:

The definite article in French

  • le is used with masculine nouns (le père = the father)
  • la is used with feminine nouns (la mère = the mother)
  • l’ is used in front of a vowel (l’enfant = the child)
  • les is used for both masculine and feminine plural (les parents = the parents)

The indefinite article in French

  • un is used with masculine nouns (un livre = a book)
  • une is used with feminine nouns (une plume = a pen)

“Of” with the definite and indefinite articles

  • MASCULINE: du père = of the father,  d’un père = of a father
  • FEMININE: de la mère = of the mother, d’une mère = of a mother
  • VOWEL:  de l’enfant = of the child, d’un enfant = of a child
  • PLURAL: des parents, des enfants, des pères, des mères, etc

These are important to know because there is no possessive in French so these are the possessive by default. That is, le livre du père = the book of the father = father’s book.

“To” with the definite and indefinite article

  • au (masculine), à la (feminine), à l’ (with vowel), aux (plural) = to the
  • à un, à une = to a

Which nouns are masculine and which are feminine?

  • Names of males, trees, days, months and seasons, and weights and measures tend to be masculine, while names of females and abstract nouns tend to be feminine (it seems that in French at least males  are boringly functional, females are thoughtfully abstract).
  • For other categories, generally there are clues from the ending of the noun itself.
  • In professions, most words ending in eur are masculine: le chanteur = the (male) singer, un acteur = a male actor. The feminine equivalents end in euse or trice: la chanteuse = the  female singer, une actrice = an actress. But as noted above, abstract nouns tend to be feminine, including those ending in eur: la couleur (colour), la chaleur (heat), la douleur (sorrow).
  • Words ending in –er or –ier tend to be masculine (le plancher = the floor, le papier = the paper), while those ending in –ère or –ière tend to be feminine (une artère = an artery, la lumière – the light).
  • Nouns ending in –oir tend to be masculine and –oire tend to be feminine (le pouvoir = the power, la gloire = glory).
  • Other word endings that tend to be masculine are: -eau, -t, -c, -age, -ail, -oir, -é, -on, -acle, -ège, -ème, -o and –ou.
  • Word endings that tend to be feminine are: -elle, -te, -tte, -de, -che, -aille, -é, -té, -tié, -onne, -aison, -ison, -ion, -esse, -ie, -ine, -une, – ure, -ance, -anse, -ence, -ense

But there are exceptions! I told you there was a lot to learn by heart, but as you go along you get to know it by instinct as well.

How to form the plural

  • On most words you simply add s to the singular, as one does in English. But note the following:
  • Singular words ending in s, x or z tend not to change: la voix, les voix = the voice, voices
  • Singular words ending in au, eu and eau tend to add an x: le bureau, les bureaux = the office, offices
  • Those ending in –al tend to become –aux in the plural: le cheval, les chevaux = the horse, horses
  • Words ending in –ou tend to add an s in the plural except for bijoux (jewels), cailloux (pebbles), choux (cabbages), genoux (knees), hiboux (owls), and joujoux (toys).
  • There is one peculiarity: un oeil = an eye, les yeux = the eyes.

So, that is a lot to absorb in one hit.

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trevorf1 13/05/2013 - 11:59 pm

Thanks for “liking” my frenchsanstears blog, Bernard. I really must check that out to make sure I put in a proper title for my own post (I forgot!) You are attempting an ambitious review here, and I’ll keep your blog under review when doing my own. One little comment, perhaps helping clarify: you say there is no possessive in French. This may confuse anyone who thought “mon,ma,mes” (etc) were possessives – as indeed they are. I know that these are adjectives, but still… maybe you could re-cast the phrase to stress what you are getting at. Meanwhile, bon courage, in whichever Romance language you are dealing with right now!

Bernard O'Shea 14/05/2013 - 12:45 am

Hello, yes you are right, I did think mentioning the possessive like that would lead to complications. And I immediately thought of the possessive adjectives. Thanks for you comments and I look forward to reading more of your blog. Cheers, Bernard

Trish Whytock 14/05/2013 - 7:23 pm

Absolutely love these blogs – must say – the grammar side of the language is not nearly as interesting as the exciting frivolous bits you add on the side! I know grammar is necessary but the distractions are infinitely more readable.

Bernard O'Shea 15/05/2013 - 3:03 pm

Glad someone agrees the grammar is a bit of a grind …. I will try to be distracted more often, cheers

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