Some basic French: nouns and articles (les noms et les articles)

Newburyport, MA

Newburyport, MA (Photo credit: thisreidwrites)

This is meant to be a language blog but recently (you may have noticed) I have been studiously avoiding grammar in favour of all sorts of other things: items on food and travel, for instance, or when one of my favourite singers dies then I use that as an excuse to ignore grammar and post some of their music and lyrics instead. But not enough good singers have been dying recently – what’s wrong with them! So I guess it’s time to knuckle down and cover some grammar. Actually, it is not so bad. It is how languages are constructed, and the construction is usually interesting.

In this blog so far we have covered the verbs to be in all five Romance languages here, here, here, here, here and here, and to have here and here. But if we really want to get talking in my five Romance languages we need to look at a lot more: nouns in the singular and plural, adjectives, the formation of adverbs, the definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a/an”), and regular and irregular verb conjugation. And we will try to have some diversions in between.

Those people whose first language is English have to grasp some different grammatical concepts when they study Romance languages. First they will have to get their heads around the fact that nouns are either masculine or feminine. (How sexist is that!)

What gender Is your country? Check out the map for the French verdict

English: The gender of countries in the French...

English: The gender of countries in the French language: countries with masculine names are green and countries with feminine names are purple. Español: Género de los nombres de los países en francés: en verde masculinos, en morado femeninos. Français: Genre masculin (vert) ou féminin (mauve) de chaque pays du monde dans la langue française. Italiano: Generi dei nomi dei paesi in francese: i verdi sono maschili, i viola femminili. Romanian: Gen de țări din limba franceză: țările cu nume masculine sunt de culoare verde și țări cu nume feminine sunt mov. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The map to the right, for example, shows which countries, according to the French language, are macho and which are girly. There is probably some linguistic logic to it. According to one of my French grammar books, those countries that end in a mute “e” are feminine (la France, for example), whereas those that do not end in a mute e are masculine (le Portugal, for example). Who would have thought that mute es could be so influential. The same also applies to rivers (le Rhin, la Seine)

Some romance languages, as well as the masculine and feminine nouns, have neuter as well (how non-sexist is that.)

Furthermore, in my Romance languages the grammatical articles and adjectives have to agree with nouns in gender and number. How agreeable or disagreeble is that? All this means is that, in order to master these languages you have to learn heaps of rules off by heart. And just to make it more challenging, in every language there will always be exceptions to the rule. Still, if it was too easy it would be boring.

We will kick off our series focusing on nouns and their matching articles with French. Why? It seems to me the French have managed to keep these things relatively simple. Or maybe I feel that way just because French was the first foreign language I studied at school, so the concepts are pretty clear to me. Portuguese doesn’t seem too bad in this regard either, so I guess Spanish will be like that too; Italian seems to be a little more complicated; and just wait till you see what surprises Romanian has in store!

So, here we go:

The definite article in French

  • le is used with masculine nouns (le père = the father)
  • la is used with feminine nouns (la mère = the mother)
  • l’ is used in front of a vowel (l’enfant = the child)
  • les is used for both masculine and feminine plural (les parents = the parents)

The indefinite article in French

  • un is used with masculine nouns (un livre = a book)
  • une is used with feminine nouns (une plume = a pen)

“Of” with the definite and indefinite articles

  • MASCULINE: du père = of the father,  d’un père = of a father
  • FEMININE: de la mère = of the mother, d’une mère = of a mother
  • VOWEL:  de l’enfant = of the child, d’un enfant = of a child
  • PLURAL: des parents, des enfants, des pères, des mères, etc

These are important to know because there is no possessive in French so these are the possessive by default. That is, le livre du père = the book of the father = father’s book.

“To” with the definite and indefinite article

  • au (masculine), à la (feminine), à l’ (with vowel), aux (plural) = to the
  • à un, à une = to a

So, which nouns are masculine and which are feminine?

  • Names of males, trees, days, months and seasons, and weights and measures tend to be masculine, while names of females and abstract nouns tend to be feminine (it seems that in French at least males  are boringly functional, females are thoughtfully abstract).
  • For other categories, generally there are clues from the ending of the noun itself.
  • In professions, most words ending in eur are masculine: le chanteur = the (male) singer, un acteur = a male actor. The feminine equivalents end in euse or trice: la chanteuse = the  female singer, une actrice = an actress. But as noted above, abstract nouns tend to be feminine, including those ending in eur: la couleur (colour), la chaleur (heat), la douleur (sorrow).
  • Words ending in –er or –ier tend to be masculine (le plancher = the floor, le papier = the paper), while those ending in –ère or –ière tend to be feminine (une artère = an artery, la lumière – the light).
  • Nouns ending in –oir tend to be masculine and –oire tend to be feminine (le pouvoir = the power, la gloire = glory).
  • Other word endings that tend to be masculine are: -eau, -t, -c, -age, -ail, -oir, -é, -on, -acle, -ège, -ème, -o and –ou.
  • Word endings that tend to be feminine are: -elle, -te, -tte, -de, -che, -aille, -é, -té, -tié, -onne, -aison, -ison, -ion, -esse, -ie, -ine, -une, – ure, -ance, -anse, -ence, -ense

But there are exceptions! I told you there was a lot to learn by heart, but as you go along you get to know it by instinct as well.

How to form the plural

  • On most words you simply add s to the singular, as one does in English. But note the following:
  • Singular words ending in s, x or z tend not to change: la voix, les voix = the voice, voices
  • Singular words ending in au, eu and eau tend to add an x: le bureau, les bureaux = the office, offices
  • Those ending in –al tend to become –aux in the plural: le cheval, les chevaux = the horse, horses
  • Words ending in –ou tend to add an s in the plural except for bijoux (jewels), cailloux (pebbles), choux (cabbages), genoux (knees), hiboux (owls), and joujoux (toys). (Funnily enough in our household we have a poodle called Bijou and a turtle called Pebbles but as yet we don’t have any owls)
  • There is one peculiarity: un oeil = an eye, les yeux = the eyes.

So, that is a lot to absorb in one hit. I had a look around on YouTube to see if there were any good tutorials on French articles, nouns, number and gender. A lot of the well-meaning tutors there are a bit slow and laborious, but this chap who goes by the name Rafatheman is brisk and to the point. He covers a lot in almost six minutes, and he has a good accent to imitate. Merci beaucoup, Rafa!


7 thoughts on “Some basic French: nouns and articles (les noms et les articles)

  1. Thanks for “liking” my frenchsanstears blog, Bernard. I really must check that out to make sure I put in a proper title for my own post (I forgot!) You are attempting an ambitious review here, and I’ll keep your blog under review when doing my own. One little comment, perhaps helping clarify: you say there is no possessive in French. This may confuse anyone who thought “mon,ma,mes” (etc) were possessives – as indeed they are. I know that these are adjectives, but still… maybe you could re-cast the phrase to stress what you are getting at. Meanwhile, bon courage, in whichever Romance language you are dealing with right now!

    • Hello, yes you are right, I did think mentioning the possessive like that would lead to complications. And I immediately thought of the possessive adjectives. Thanks for you comments and I look forward to reading more of your blog. Cheers, Bernard

  2. Absolutely love these blogs – must say – the grammar side of the language is not nearly as interesting as the exciting frivolous bits you add on the side! I know grammar is necessary but the distractions are infinitely more readable.

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