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Is there a specific rule on how you should refer to someone of unknown gender in French? For example, if you were writing a guide on how to do something and you wanted to indicate that the reader should do something, which of the below (or something else?) would it be best to write?

Il doit faire...
Elle doit faire...
On doit faire...
Il faut faire...

This question also applies if someone's gender is in dispute; how would you refer to that person?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In French we are not as surprised if “une personne” relates to a man and if “quelqu'un” is a woman. (Yet feminine words like “personne” which may easily refer to a man are quite rare, currently I can just think of “sentinelle”, “estafette”, “recrue”, “ordonnance”, all four from the military vocabulary BTW, “personnalité”, “victime” and “connaissance”; there are probably a few other expressions like “grande gueule”).

Even if you try to be less obvious with masculine terms (using on, the plural, the second person, …), the rules of French are such that the masculine will still be present. Trying to be real neutral is harder and more non natural than in English.

It is perhaps why this matter is less sensitive than in English, at least from a male perspective (a female view would be welcome). The convention is to use the masculine; doing otherwise is more often than not a political statement.

Note that while the rule le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin is often stated and used, there is a quite strong usage to use feminine name for professions mostly feminine (for example, people will use institutrice to refer to the teacher of unknown sex for small children, the use of infirmières to refer to the whole profession is also common).

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When I was at school, we were told to start letters with Cher Monsieur if we didn't know the gender of the person we were writing to. At the time, I believe the rule was to assume masculine until proven otherwise.

This behaviour mimics the fact that a mixed plural is always masculine too (Paul et Marie sont grands whereas Paul est grand and Marie est grande). The saying goes le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin (masculine wins over feminine).

Similarly, it is usual to refer to the reader as le lecteur ; for example le lecteur intéressé se réfèrera au livre de Jules Dubonnet (The interested reader should consult the book by Jules Dubonnet).

However, there are people who believe[citation needed] this is a way of asserting a male superiority and that it's unfair towards women. The saying le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin in itself it particularly eloquent and can be understood as "men win" if taken out of a pure grammatical context (which it shouldn't be).

As such, if you want to keep a neutral stance, it may be better to either mention both (Chère madame, cher monsieur) or maybe use a plural (Les lecteurs intéressés se réfèreront au livre de Jules Dubonnet) which, even if it's still masculine, tacitly encompasses female readers too.

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2  
Seems like English, only with less feminist influence. :-) –  Jez Sep 1 '11 at 9:41
3  
@Jez, in a language where beard is feminine and vagina is masculine, taking political-correctness down to the level of grammar is a non-starter :) –  Benjol Sep 1 '11 at 11:22
5  
I was taught that it is not a matter of any gender's superiority. The reason why "le masculin l'emporte" is that there is no real masculine in French, what we call "masculine" is rather a default gender, the feminine being the only inflected gender. So il is the neutral pronoun, in a somewhat twisted way. –  Evpok Sep 1 '11 at 11:36
    
It's a more sensible way of seeing things, but I'm afraid the lack of masculine has forced people to believe that the default was, in fact, masculine. I for one didn't know about that. –  Joubarc Sep 1 '11 at 12:09
1  
@Joubarc Follow my lead : be an annoying pedantic linguistics fanboy and pester everyone with the fun fact :p –  Evpok Sep 3 '11 at 1:41

When you're writing a guide, you can choose from four options when talking to the reader:

  • imperative form: Cassez les œufs et battez-les.

  • infinitive form: Casser les œufs et les battre.

  • impersonal form: Il faut casser les œufs et les battre.

  • passive form: Les œufs doivent être cassés et battus.

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+1 All the stuff on gender and pronouns is interesting but writing a guide in the third person would be very odd. –  Relaxed Apr 28 at 18:56

The rules for general context are very well described in the other answers, but I just wanted to add something for mailing rules (from where I work, but I assume we aren't the only mass printing company with such rules):

  • known gender (M) ⟶ Cher client,

  • known gender (F) ⟶ Chère cliente,

  • unknown gender ⟶ Chère cliente, Cher client,

Here, the need to be affable with your customers (who are more often female than male in many activities) has changed the slightly aged rule of Le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin

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Marketing documents as a reference for « bon usage » ? It's the last place I would look at considering their love for anything which draw attention, especially broking rules and not respecting common usages. –  Un francophone Jun 3 '13 at 7:52
1  
A reference ? for bon usage ? Where was that stated ? I was merely adding an existing usage, which has (whether it pleases you/me or not) an influence on french language usage, yes. People read their mail, don't they ? –  Romain VALERI Jun 3 '13 at 8:29

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