Masculine or feminine? Figuring out which gender is assigned to which thing is a subject of continual head scratching for the non-native speaker of French.
In this age of gender fluidity and non-binary assumptions, in order to speak French properly it is still essential to ask the increasingly loaded question: is it male or female?
I’ve posted before about gender benders and the impossibility of applying logic or rules to correctly guess whether something is a ‘le’ or a ‘la’.
The thing to remember is that in spoken French, it’s not all that important. Oui, your French native will raise an eyebrow when you say ‘le clé’ (key is feminine) or ‘la poil’ (hair is masculine), but in reality, it hardly matters. The important thing in learning to speak a language is plunging ahead, mistakes be damned. And the only way to learn the gender rules for French words is by rote, regular practice and occasionally getting it wrong.
In written French, however, it is always worth checking. And how much easier is that task in the age of the internet! A quick search reveals the correct spelling and genre of any given word, although the grammar rules are sometimes rather more complex, with certain words varying in gender according to the use. The challenge is that sometimes we forget to check or can’t be bothered or are convinced (like me) that we are right.
There is an expression in French that sums this up perfectly: les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent. This means that while spoken words fly away, anything in writing, even as ephemeral as the online world, remains. In other words, you can get away with almost any oral mistake but once it is written in black and white, it is harder to ignore.
Thanks to FranceTaste for inspiring this post in a recent comment, and to Phildange for keeping us honest!