Playing around with the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française a few months back (as you do on a quiet Sunday afternoon), I came across an amazing discovery. Nearly every French noun ending in t is masculine.
Don’t go away just yet. “Nearly every” is a bit loaded. But still. There are 2754 French nouns that end in t. Of those, 2723 (99%) are masculine and just 31 (1%) are feminine.
I wish I’d known that thirty years ago, when trying to remember that taps (robinets) are masculine. All that wasted effort! (effort – masculine)
Digging deeper into those 31 exceptions (the advanced search of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française is a wonderful tool), it turns out there are only seven nouns I ever actually use:
la nuit, la mort, la part, la plupart, la forêt, la basket, la dent
Put it another way: learn those seven exceptions and you’ve got the gender of 2700 odd words sorted.
Which exceptions you need to know is a personal choice. La jument is feminine too, but as it’s not a word I ever use, I’m going to leave it out of my need-to-know box. The edges are fuzzy. But at least there are signposts.
At first glance, the best endings are those with no exceptions:
-ier : 514, all masculine (un calendrier, un chantier)
-aison : 63, all feminine (une maison, une raison)
-al : 109 masculine, (un cheval, un hôpital…)
-tion : 1733, all feminine (un bastion isn’t need to know for me)
And so on. But in fact those rules are so regular that our brains work them out for themselves and these are not words where we make mistakes over gender. It’s where there are exceptions that confusion slips in. Sometimes there’s just one spanner in the works:
-all commonly used French nouns ending in -ain are masculine except la main
-all commonly used French nouns ending in -ence are feminine except un silence
-all commonly used French nouns ending in -er are masculine except la mer
And sometimes there are a handful important exceptions to an otherwise useful rule:
-1357 French nouns ending -age are masculine, but the exceptions are very commonplace words: une cage, une image, une page, une plage
Compound nouns are a whole category of exceptions in themselves:
– la pluie, un parapluie
– la monnaie, un portemonnaie
And sometimes there’s no discernible rule at all:
-la grammaire, le vocabulaire
-une île, un missile
Is this useful to know?
You need a certain mindset to find this kind of knowledge valuable. There are those who learn their vocabulary aurally and pick up the gender of nouns just by listening. I’m jealous.
But if you’re the type of person who suddenly finds themselves in mid-sentence thinking “is x masculine or feminine”, having some kind of safety net (other than a smartphone) is convenient.
Here’s how you can do it.
Logically, nouns can only fit in one of three categories: those that follow a rule, those that are exceptions to a rule and those for whom there aren’t really any rules. So for each noun you stumble upon, look at its ending and put it in one of those three mental boxes. Let’s see.
magazine. What do you reckon? It’s masculine: un magazine.
But it’s an exception: nearly all nouns ending in -ine are feminine. So let’s create two mental boxes. And let’s put a word you’re confident about as the anchor for each box.
Box: -ine = feminine
Rule : la cuisine (anchor), la copine, la discipline, la semaine…
Exceptions : le magazine (anchor), le domaine, le patrimoine
That’s it. By remembering three exceptions, you’ll have the gender of 500 words in the bag.
Of course the boxes are just a means to an end: the goal is not to have to use them. But that fluency only comes by repeatedly getting things right. And you can only repeatedly get things right by knowing where to find the right answer.
There are dozens of other rules you can discover to help you remember the gender of nouns (think for example about words that end in -ade, -ée, -erie, -ette, -ise, -euil, -ail or ard). It’s for you to make your own mental spaces though. Build them around words that you use: those that you are sure about and those that you trip up on.
I still make mistakes over gender. When the conversation goes too fast, I don’t have time to look in my boxes. Ingrained bad habits seep out. But with my boxes, I’m more likely to realise the error of my ways and get it right next time. And faith in the future is what it’s all about.