Masculin ou féminin?

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!


  1. phildange · April 30, 2019

    Keeping you honest ? Mmm looks like an impossible task … 🙄
    I agree to learn a language we best have to dive and not fear the errors, it’s the quickest way did I find . But we also need to be conscientious pupils who thoroughly study and want to learn .

    About genders, Anglophones have to stop speaking of male and female, this creates a useless confusion . Genders of objects or concepts have NO relation with male or female, they are pure grammatical attributes . Un vagin is a clear example of this fact . And to find out genders, before internet there were mysterious objects that a few initiated ones knew, big books with a secret name, dictionaries .😉

    When bored in long third world train or bus trips I played a game consisting in looking for French words that exist with both genders, are written the same but have two alien meanings and origins, like un livre and une livre . Sometimes I happened to find more than 30 that I forgot soon after, so I could play again in the next damn long trip . Good I was not Anglophone, how do they do to play ?

    • MELewis · May 1, 2019

      How do we keep ourselves entertained? Hmm…if I were going to be pretentious, I would say ‘small entertainments for small minds’, and that not having all that gender stuff to worry about frees us anglos to think about bigger things. But that would be too mean and small-minded of me! 😛 (Also not really true…lol). I must say that French does have a way of filling your thoughts. Mine are often occupied by things that sound the same but mean something different. Mai and mais for example.

  2. francetaste · April 30, 2019

    I was going to point out the illogical examples, starting with un vagin and un sein and une couille. There are other examples of synonyms where one is masculine and the other is feminine. It makes my brain explode.
    My husband gets a laugh when I mistake the gender but I meticulously make the adjectives and pronouns agree.

    • phildange · April 30, 2019

      Good girl . Wrong agreements are what makes me puke .

      • francetaste · April 30, 2019

        In Swahili, there’s no masculine or feminine. There isn’t even he/she or him/her. However, there are SEVEN classes of nouns. Chair (kiti), book (kitabu) and cup (kikombe) are all in the ki-vi class–the plurals are viti, vitabu and vikombe. His three chairs are viti vyake vitatu. And so on for all the classes. Humans and animals are in the m-wa class–mtoto is a child; watoto are children. This is where you get the Watutsi–the people of the Tutsi tribe. In many cases, the noun itself gives a clue as to which class it’s in, especially in the plural, but there are some tricky ones.

    • MELewis · May 1, 2019

      Cognitive dissonance induced by French grammar. When your brain says left but your tongue goes right. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep at night… 😂

  3. phildange · April 30, 2019

    Ah you’re a Bantu ! Whence your funny accent … But do you speak the literary Swahili or the streets one ?
    Back to genders, French and other Romance tongues are simple compared to old Greek, Latin, German or Russian who all have 3 . Out of Europe we can see that Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi have masculine and feminine genders too . Indeed English is a handicapped exception .

    • MELewis · May 1, 2019

      Okay I humbly can’t compete with Swahili, Greek or Russian, however fascinating. I leave it to you master linguists.🤓

  4. midihideaways · May 1, 2019

    I get the genders wrong plenty of times still – after all those years!! Thing is that many genders in French are the opposite to what they are in German, so that’s my excuse!! 🙂 It’s also why I love the English language so much, it’s so flexible!!

  5. Colin Bisset · May 1, 2019

    It’s the bane of my life in my clumsy attempts at French conversation so it’s music to my ears to hear people are more forgiving with spoken gender mistakes!

    • MELewis · May 2, 2019

      Absolutely! They have to be forgiving as those mistakes in the spoken language are unavoidable for a non-native.
      And if even a famous adopted French icons like Jane Birkin can still get away with ‘le chaise’… 🤫

      • phildange · May 2, 2019

        An adorable pure beauty like Jane could even get away with “le femme” ! ordinary women need a bit more efforts .

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