An Overview of French Nouns
Nouns are words that refer to people, e.g.: soeur ("sister"), places, e.g.: la France ("France"), concrete things, e.g.: livre ("book") and abstract notions, e.g.: amour ("love"). The most important thing to know about nouns is that you need to learn as many as you can! We suggest you start with the most common ones and use vocabulary lists to increase your knowledge of nouns.
When writing nouns, you need to know how to spell them and how to indicate both gender (feminine/masculine) and number (singular/plural).
The words that correspond to a and the in English (i.e.: un, une, le, la, les) match the nouns they precede in several ways. One important way is what is referred to as grammatical gender. All French nouns are either masculine or feminine. This has nothing to do with biology, it’s just a way French organizes words. The important thing to remember is that if a noun is feminine, then the preceding word must also be in the feminine form, e.g.:
In the example given above, chose is feminine, which is why it is preceded by une rather than un.
The real challenge is knowing which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. It’s not always easy to determine without checking a dictionary. However, there are some general patterns that might be of help. For example, almost all words that end in -ion are feminine, e.g.:
- une nation, une imagination, une version, une position, etc.
Most words of more than one syllable ending in -age are masculine, e.g.:
- un voyage, un lavage, un courage (one syllable words in -age tend to be feminine, e.g.: la plage, la cage, la page).
Whenever you learn a new word, make sure you also learn whether or not is preceded by un or une.
Gender and meaning
A relatively small number of words change meaning depending on their gender, e.g.:
- un livre ("book"); une livre ("a pound")
- un manche ("a handle"); une manche ("a sleeve")
- le tour ("the turn"); la tour ("the tower")
- un vase ("a vase"); la vase ("slime")
- le mode ("the mode/way"); la mode ("the fashion")
- un poêle ("a stove"); une poêle ("a frying pan")
- un mémoire ("a memoir"; la mémoire ("the memory")
Singular and Plural Nouns
Like English, French explicitly indicates when there is a plural noun (i.e.: more than one), e.g. Les amis, ses enfants. The most common way to indicate this is with an -s at the end of the noun (though it is almost never pronounced).
Some nouns, however, actually indicate plural with an -x. The most common are:
- un cheval > des chevaux
- un journal > des journaux
- un feu des feux
- un ciel > des cieux
- un cheveu > des cheveux
- de l'eau > des eaux
- un hibou > des hiboux
- un genou > des genoux
As you can see, the nouns that form their plural in -x are limited to those ending in -al, ou, el, au and eu (and there is the odd exception to this "exception", e.g.: un pneu, des pneus, un festival, des festivals).
Plural of Compound Nouns
When two nouns or a noun and adjective are joined by a hyphen, both show plural marking,
- des coffres-forts
- des oiseaux-mouches
- des grands-pères
In cases where the first word is a verb and the second a noun, it is usually only the noun that bears the plural mark, e.g.:
- des bouche-trous
- des couvre-lits
- des tire-bouchons
If two nouns in a compound are separated by a preposition, the tendency is to only make the first word plural, e.g.:
- des arcs-en-ciel
- des chefs-d'oeuvre
- des haut-parleurs
- des timbres-poste
- des gardes-malades
Some details to consider
*last names don't actually end in -s, e.g.: Les Tremblay, Les Fournier, les Nadasdi, les Sinclair, etc.
* the plural of un oeil is des yeux
Common Anglicisms to Avoid
*la location means "rental" ("what is your location?" = Où êtes-vous?).
*un essai means "a try", not "an essay" (use dissertation or travail écrit).
*graduation refers to decreasing/increasing (use la remise de diplômes or avoir son diplôme).
*la chance means "luck" (use un essai, "a try", or une possibilité)
*un caractère refers to someone's personality (use un personnage to talk about people in movies, books, etc.)
* une librairie means "a bookstore" (use bibliothèque for "library")
A list of common anglicisms can be found here.