Gender of nouns
In French, all nouns have a grammatical gender; that is, they are either masculin (m) or feminin (f).
Most nouns that express people or animals have both a masculine and a feminine form. For example, the two words for “the actor” in French are l’acteur (m) and l’actrice (f). The two words for “the cat” are le chat (m) and la chatte (f).
However, there are some nouns that talk about people or animals whose gender are fixed, regardless of the actual gender of the person or animal. For example, la personne (f) (the person) is always feminine, even when it’s talking about your uncle! Le professeur (m) (the professor) is always masculine, even when it’s talking about your female professor/teacher!
The nouns that express things without an obvious gender (e.g., objects and abstract concepts) have only one form. This form can be masculine or feminine. For example, la voiture (the car) can only be feminine; le stylo (the pen) can only be masculine.
Unfortunately, there are many exceptions in French which can only be learned. There are even words that are spelled the same, but have a different meaning when masculine or feminine; for example, le livre (m) means the book, but la livre (f) means the pound! Some words that appear to be masculine (like le photo, which is actually short for la photographie) are in fact feminine, and vice versa. Then there are some that just don’t make sense; la foi is feminine and means a belief, whereas le foie means liver. To help overcome this hurdle which many beginners find very difficult, be sure to learn the genders along with the words. When you think of a noun in French, think of the noun with its article (le or la). While this may seem difficult now, it is absolutely essential in la langue française (the French language), as you will see later on!
Here is a chart which depicts some tendencies of French nouns. Eventually, you will be able to guess the gender of a noun based on tricks like this:
|French Grammar • Basic grammar|
Gender of Nouns Genre des Noms
|Masculine||Common Endings Used|
With Masculine Nouns:
|le cheval||the horse||-age||le fromage|
|le chien||the dog||-r||le professeur|
|le livre||the book||-t||le chat|
|le bruit||the noise||-isme||le capitalisme|
|Feminine||Common Endings Used|
With Feminine Nouns:
|la colombe||the dove||-ie||la boulangerie|
|la chemise||the shirt||-ion||la nation|
|la maison||the house||-ite/-ité||la fraternité|
|la liberté||liberty||-nce||la balance|
Professeur can be shortened to prof (in a familiar context). While the long form, professeur, is always masculine, even when referring to female teachers, prof can be either masculine or feminine. (le prof – the (male) teacher) (la prof – the (female) teacher)
In this book, the definite article will come before a noun in vocabulary charts. If the definite article is l due to elision, (m) will follow a noun to denote a masculine gender and (f) will follow a noun to denote a feminine gender.
Definite and indefinite articles
The definite article
In English, the definite article is always “the”.
Unlike English, the definite article is used to talk about something in a general sense, a general statement or feeling about an idea or thing.
In French, the definite article is changed depending on the noun’s:
- First letter of the word
There are three definite articles and an abbreviation. “Le” is used for masculine nouns, “La” is used for feminine nouns, “Les” is used for plural nouns (both masculine or feminine), and “L’ ” is used when the noun begins with a vowel or silent “h” (both masculine or feminine). It is similar to English, where “a” changes to “an” before a vowel.
|French Grammar • Basic grammar|
The Definite Article L’article défini
|singular||feminine||la||la fille||the daughter|
|masculine||le||le fils||the son|
|singular, starting with a vowel sound||l’||l’enfant||the child|
|plural||les||les filles||the daughters|
|les fils||the sons|
|les enfants||the children|
Plurality, pronunciation, and exceptions
The plural of most nouns is formed by adding an -s. However, the -s ending is not pronounced. It is the article that tells the listener whether the noun is singular or plural.
^ Fils: Most singular nouns do not end in -s. The -s is added for the plural form of the noun. Fils is one exception. Whenever the singular form of a noun ends in -s, there is no change in the plural form.
Secondly, the final consonant is almost always not pronounced unless followed by an -e (or another vowel). Fils (pronounced feece) is also an exception to this rule.
Elision refers to the suppression of a final unstressed vowel immediately before another word beginning with a vowel. The definite articles le and la are shortened to l’ when they come before a noun that begins with a vowel or silent h. When pronounced, the vowel sound is dropped.
- (le) ami – l’ami – lahmee – the (male) friend
- (la) amie – l’amie – lahmee the (female) friend
- (le) élève – l’élève – lay lev – the student
- (la) heure – l’heure – leur – the hour/the time
Elision does not occur on an aspired h:
- (le) héros – le héros – a legendary hero
In addition to the definite article, elision will also occur with other words, such as que, je, le, ce, ne, and de. The details on these words will be covered in later sections of the book.
The indefinite article
In English, the indefinite articles are “a” and “an”. “Some” is used as a plural article in English.
Again, indefinite articles in French take different forms depending on gender and plurality. The articles “Un” and “une” literally mean “one” in French.
|French Grammar • Basic grammar|
The Indefinite Article L’article indéfini
|singular||feminine||une||oon||une fille||a daughter|
|masculine||un||uh||un fils||a son|
|plural||des||day||des filles||some daughters|
|des fils1||some sons|
1“des fils” does mean “some sons” but is an homograph: it can also mean “some threads” (when pronounced like “fill”)
Remember that the last consonant of a word is typically not pronounced unless followed by a vowel. When a word ending in a consonant is followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound (or silent h), the consonant often becomes pronounced. This is a process called liaison. When a vowel goes directly after un, the normally unpronounced n sound becomes pronounced.
- (un) ami – unnami (uhnahmee) – a (male) friend
- (un) élève – unnélève (uhnay lev) – a student
Compare the pronunciation to words without liaison:
- un garçon (uh gehrsoh)
Une is unaffected by liaison.
Liaison also occurs with les and des.
- (les) amis – leszamis (layzahmee) – (some) (male) friends
- (des) amis – deszamis (dayzahmee) – (some) (male) friends
- (des) amies – deszamies (dayzahmee) – (some) (female) friends
In this book, you will see liaison denoted with n or z between two words.
As with elision, an aspired h isn’t liaised.
- (les) hangars – les hangars
Note that des, like les, is used in French before plural nouns when no article is used in English. For example, you are looking at photographs in an album. The English statement “I am looking at photographs.” cannot be translated to French as “Je regarde photographies” because an article is required to tell which photographs are being looked at. If it is a set of specific pictures, the French statement should be “Je regarde les photographies.” (“I am looking at the photographs.”) . On the other hand, if the person is just randomly browsing the album, the French translation is “Je regarde des photographies.” (“I am looking at some photographs.”)
|French Vocabulary • Basic grammar|
People Les personnes
|la personne||person||pehr son|
|Gender and Age|
|la fillette||little girl||fee yet|
Qu’est-ce que c’est?
To say What is it? or What is that? in French, Qu’est-ce que c’est? (pronounced kehss keuh say) is used.
- Qu’est-ce que c’est ? – What is it?
Literally, Qu’est-ce que c’est? translates to What is it that it is? You will be using Qu’est-ce que…? often to say What…? at the beginning of sentences.
To respond to this question, you say C’est un(e) [nom]., meaning It is a [noun].
- C’est un livre. – It’s a book.
- C’est un chien. – It’s a dog.
Remember that the indefinite article (un or une) must agree with the noun it modifies.
- C’est une chemise. – It’s a shirt.
Il y a and voici/voilà
Il y a (pronounced eel ee ah) is used to say there is or there are. Il y a expresses the existence of the noun it introduces.
- Il y a une pomme. – There is an apple.
The phrase is used for both singular and plural nouns. Unlike in English (is => are), il y a does not change form.
- Il y a des pommes. – There are (some) apples.
The -s at the end of the most pluralised nouns tells you that the phrase is there are instead of there is. In spoken French, when both the singular and plural forms almost always sound the same, the article (and perhaps other adjectives modifying the noun) is used to distinguish between singular and plural versions.
You will soon learn that a is the present third person singular form of avoir, the verb meaing to have, and that y is a pronoun meaning there. The phrase il y a, then, literally translates to he has there. You will see this phrase used in all French tenses. It is important to remember that verb stays as a form of have and not be.
Like in English, il y a… is not often used to point out an object. To point out an object to the listener, use voici (“over here is/are” or “right here is/are”) and voilà (“over there is/are”).
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