It may seem strange to us that chairs and tables are feminine whereas sofas and curtains are masculine, but that is one of the things we have to accept when learning French. In actual fact, English is the odd man out when it comes to gender, as nouns in most languages are either masculine or feminine. Whilst it is obvious that men, boys, brothers and uncles will be masculine and women, girls, sisters and aunts will be feminine, there often seems to be neither rhyme nor reason for the gender of other nouns.
Trying to learn the gender of every noun may seem a daunting task, but you may begin to notice certain patterns that will help you. For example, nouns ending with a double consonant followed by the letter e (such as ‘la chaussette’) will almost definitely be feminine. Nouns ending in -eau, on the other hand, are typically masculine, for example ‘le bateau’.
I have compiled a list of typical masculine and typical feminine endings of French nouns. For each ending I’ve given a few examples as well as any notable exceptions. This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who would like add to it!
Typical Masculine endings
-ment, for example le gouvernement (the government), un appartement (a flat), le commencement (the beginning), un abonnement (a subscription). An exception is la jument (the mare).
-age, for example le village, le paysage (the countryside), l’embouteillage (the traffic jam), le bricolage (do-it-yourself). Several exceptions include une image (a picture), la plage (the beach), la nage (swimming). Note that le page is a page boy, whilst la page is the page of a book (or newspaper, etc.).
-aire, as in un horaire (a timetable, working hours), l’anniversaire (the birthday), un annuaire (a directory), le frigidaire (the refrigerator).
-e, as in le café (coffee or café), le canapé (the sofa), le blé (wheat), le carré (the square), le défilé (the procession), le supermarché (the supermarket).
-eau, for example le bateau (the boat), le manteau (the coat), le chapeau (the hat), l’oiseau (the bird). The one exception is l’eau (water), which is feminine.
-in, for example le vin (the wine), le magasin (the shop), le dessin (the drawing), le chemin (the road, way), le jardin (the garden). An exception is la fin (the end).
-isme, as in le tourisme, le cyclisme.
-o, for example le vélo (a bike), le zéro. An exception is la méteo (the weather forecast).
-ier, as in le fermier (the farmer), l’épicier (the grocer), le chantier (the roadworks, building site), le cahier (the notebook, exercise book), le pommier (the apple tree).
-er, mostly occupation-related, for example le boucher (the butcher), le boulanger (the baker).
-eur, as in le travailleur (the worker), un ascenseur (a lift), le moteur (the moteur (the motor), un aspirateur (a vacuum cleaner). Exceptions include la douleur (the pain), la chaleur (the heat).
-on, as in le salon (the sitting room), le poisson (the fish), le garçon (the boy), le pantalon (the trousers). An exception is la maison (the house).
Typical Feminine endings
-tion, for example many words that are identical to English: la situation, la question, la solution, l’éducation, l’opération, la nation, l’action; also la natation (swimming), l’agglomération (the town, built-up area), l’alimentation (food).
-ence, again, many words that are similar to English: la patience, la violence, la conscience, l’agence; also la concurrence (competition, in the sense of rivalry).
-ance, for example la tolérance, les vacances (holidays), la croissance (growth), l’enfance (childhood). An exception is le silence.
-té, as in la beauté, la priorité, la sécurité, la majorité, l’activité.
-ade, as in la promenade (the walk), la limonade. An exception is l’escalade (masculine, climbing).
-ée, for example l’entrée (the entrance, first course of a meal), une cuillerée (a spoonful), la chaussée (the road, carriageway), la bouchée (the mouthful), la corvée (the chore, task), la fusée (the rocket). Exceptions include le lycée (the school), le musée (the museum).
-que, as in la boutique, la musique, la gymnastique, la bibliothèque (the library). Exceptions are le plastique, le kiosque, le moustique (the mosquito).
-ure, for example la chaussure (the shoe), la blessure (the wound), la couture (dressmaking, the seam), l’allure (speed), la nourriture (food), la culture.
-erie, notably for names of shops such as la boulangerie (the bakery), la boucherie (the butcher’s), la librairie (the bookshop), l’épicerie (the grocery); also la sonnerie (the ringing of a bell or phone), la gendarmerie (the police station).
-ère, as in la mère (the mother), la manière (the manner), la matière (the matter, school subject), la boulangère (a female baker). Exceptions are le père (the father), le frère (the brother).
-ette, for example la chaussette (the sock), la fillette (the little girl), une assiette (a plate), les toilettes, la tablette (the shelf, bar of chocolate), la roulette (the roller skate), la vignette (road-tax disc). An exception is le squelette (the skeleton).
-rice, commonly for occupations such as la directrice (the female director), une actrice (an actress), la traductrice (the female translator). Le dentifrice (the toothpaste) is an exception.
-ssion, as in la passion, la repression, l’émission (the programme).
-esse, as in la tristesse (sadness), la vitesse (the speed, gear), la paresse (laziness), la jeunesse (youth), la sécheresse (the drought), la richesse (wealth), une hôtesse (a hostess).