In English we say:
the boy, the girl.
However in French we say:
le garçon, la fille.
As can be seen the definite article (“the”) is expressed here by two different words: le and la. This means that French nouns belong to two groups. Which group a noun belongs to is shown by the article.
The names of the two groups are called masculine (le) and feminine (la). These denominations refer to the natural gender (le garçon – masculine, la fille – feminine) but nouns that do not have a natural gender also belong to one of the groups. E.g.:
le livre (the book), la maison (the house).
So, which noun belongs to which group? What is the rule? Well, it is hard to define a perfect rule that helps to categorise all French nouns. In part the natural gender of the noun (if it has one) can help. But what about nouns that do not have a natural gender? The situation is that the gender of a noun has to be learnt together with the noun itself. It is not enough to learn that “book” in French is livre but you rather have to learn le livre.
However, nouns with a vowel in the beginning have the article l’ independent from the gender (e.g.: l’arbre – the tree – masculine; l’image – the picture – feminine). Thus, dictionaries usually represent the gender by showing not the definite article but only a letter m for masculine or a letter f form feminine, e.g.:
It is important to know the article (gender) of a noun as it can sometimes make a difference in the meaning. E.g. if you say le poste, it means “job”. But, if you say la poste, it means “post office”. Le tour means “turn”, la tour means “tower”. Le mode is “way”, “manner”, la mode is “fashion”.
un livre (a book)
une maison (a house)
ce livre (this book)
cette maison (this house)
mon livre (my book)
ma maison (my house)
In summary it is very important to know the gender (the definite article) of nouns, as their gender can appear in many ways in a French sentence.
There are some rules that help us to classify French nouns. Either their meaning or their ending can often determine the gender.
Classification by meaning
1. all the names of seasons, days of the week and months:
le printemps, l’été (m), l’automne (m), l’hiver (m)
le lundi, le mardi, le mercredi, le jeudi, le vendredi, le samedi, le dimanche; le jour (day)
le janvier, le février, le mars l’avril (m), le mai, le juin, le juillet, l’août (m) le septembre, l’octobre (m), le novembre, le décembre; le mois (month)
2. Points of the compass:
le nord, le sud, l’est (m), l’ouest (m)
3. Lakes and mountains: le lac Balaton (le Balaton), le lac de Constance (Bodensee, Lake Constance), le Harz / le Hartz, le (lac) Baïkal, l’Etna (m), l’Himalaya (m)
1. The names of planets
Mercure, Vénus, la Terre, Mars, Jupiter, Saturne, Uranus, Neptune, Pluton; la Lune; la planète
2. names of countries and territories and other geographical names with the ending -e: la France, la Hongrie
exceptions: le Mexique, le Combodge, le Rhône, Zimbabwe
Classification by ending
It is hard to classify nouns precisely. However, some rules can be defined in general, though there are almost always one or more exceptions. One reason for the exceptions can be traced back to the origin of the word. E.g., most nouns with the ending -eau are masculine but the word eau (water) is feminine as it goes back to the Latin aqua.
-er: le janvier, le février
-eau, -ou: le manteau (coat), le château (castle); le cou (neck), le genou (knee)
exceptions: l’eau (f) (water), la peau (skin)
–il, -ail, -eil, -ueil: le Soleil
-ment: le pigment, le document, le parlement, le moment, l’instrument