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I've been learning French since 5 months ago. I have this question about French usage. Let's consider the following translations, for instance.

  • Je suis beau – I am beautiful.
  • Elle est belle – She is beautiful.

My question is very simple: what is the exact difference between these two words "beau" and "belle"? Is the difference based on formal/informal, male/female or even present/past contexts?

  • As a side note, there is a third form : bel to be used for male gender when the next word starts with a vowel sound: un bel arbre/un bel homme. – njzk2 Jan 21 '15 at 19:38
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    See also this. – user3177 Jan 21 '15 at 23:37
  • @Mehrdad HAD the only answer so far that addresses the importance of context (i.e., WHAT is being described) when trying to FULLY understand the meaning of "beau/belle" in French AND when trying to CORRECTLY translate it into another language (English in this case, judging by your specific, now deleted request for answers in English). Although incomplete, Mehrdad's answer was no more so than answers that completely omit any discussion of the important distinction between “handsome” & “beautiful,” and that’s why I upvoted it as a helpful, even essential part of this discussion.(to be continued) – Papa Poule Jan 22 '15 at 18:32
  • To say or even imply by omission that one can ALWAYS TRANSLATE “beau/bel/belle” to EITHER “handsome” or “beautiful” REGARDLESS of context is ignoring the importance of context when trying to fully understand and ACCURATELY (not just literally) TRANSLATE this set of words into English (e.g., “une BELLE mer” = a CALM sea; “une BELLE vague”= a BIG wave; “une BELLE femme”= a BEAUTIFUL woman; & “un BEL homme”= a HANDSOME man. Although now deleted, please take heed of the legitimate point that Mehrdad was making when you decide whether to use “handsome” or “beautiful” in translations. @Mehrdad – Papa Poule Jan 22 '15 at 18:34
  • I didn't see the discussed answer, but the OP question seems to be more related to the provided translation context (ie: male/female comparison of beau/belle) than about accurate uses of beau/belle ? – Uriel Jan 22 '15 at 19:58
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It's simply male/female variation.

"Je suis beau" means I am a boy and I am beautiful. "Je suis belle" means I am a girl and I am beautiful.

So you will also say: "Elle est belle" and "Il est beau".

And for the plural forms:

"Elles sont belles" and "Ils sont beaux".

Note that "beau" is the masculine form and "belle" is the feminine.

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    It would be more appropriate to associate this variation with grammatical gender in general as inanimate nouns have gender in French: La forêt est belle en automne. – GAM PUB Nov 29 '15 at 21:01
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If you're learning French, there is a significant difference with English in that adjectives change according to masculine/feminine and singular/plural. So in your example, the gender explain the difference :

  • masculine singular : "he is handsome" translate to "il est beau"
  • feminine singular : "she is handsome" translate to "elle est belle"
  • masculine plural : "they are handsome" translate to "ils sont beaux"
  • feminine plural: "they are handsome" (with exclusively female subjects1) translate to "elles sont belles"

You may also find "bel" as a male singular form, when the adjective appears before the vowel-starting noun. For example, you will say "c'est un bel homme" and not "c'est un beau homme". If you're a starter, do not focus on this, but you may read it here and there...

Note 1: This grammatical rule known as "Le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin" raises discussion in France, as some consider it implies gender discrimination.

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    bel is not only to make sentences clearer: it is actually required before vowel sounds -- "un bel homme" is correct, "un homme beau" is correct too, but "un beau homme" is incorrect. Watch out for rough 'h' : "un beau hamster". Same for the rather scarce 'fol' ("un fol amour" = "un amour fou"). – Alexandre C. Jan 21 '15 at 21:07
  • @AlexandreC. You're right ; I adjusted the answer accordingly. – Uriel Jan 21 '15 at 21:37
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    The use of male and female in this context seems both misleading and inappropriate. Grammatical gender is usually described as masculine and feminine. About Note 1, masculine is the default gender in French, as singular is the default number, and 3 person the default person. There is no discussion about these facts, only about the poor wording people generally use to formulate the facts. – GAM PUB Nov 29 '15 at 16:46
  • @GAMPUB : adjusted the answer to use the more correct masculine/feminine. Nonetheless, the default masculine still raises issues, as it can anyhow be linked to non-grammatical gender. – Uriel Nov 29 '15 at 19:58
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    @Uriel As I was saying before, defaults exists for all inflectional attributes, not only gender. They are needed for example when you have an impersonal subject (M, SG, 3SG => il faut), a verbal subject (3SG => fumer tue) or a clausal complement (M, SG, 3SG => qu'il fait beau, Paul le sait). AFAIK German has a more complicated situation where there is a default for inanimates and another one for animates... – GAM PUB Nov 29 '15 at 20:55
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Le féminin des adjectifs


Règle générale:

Adjectif masculin + E = Adjectif féminin

Exemples:

  • grand–grande
  • vert–verte

Règles d'exception:

–e devient –e

Exemples:

  • jeune
  • rapide
  • facile
  • magnifique

–er devient –ère

Exemple:

  • léger – légère

–f devient –ve

Exemple:

  • neuf – neuve

–eux devient –euse

Exemple:

  • heureux – heureuse

– et, –el, –eil, –en, –ien, –on deviennent –ette, –elle, eille, –enne, –ienne, –onne

Exemples:

  • cadet–cadette
  • formel–formelle
  • pareil–pareille
  • européen– européenne
  • ancien–ancienne
  • bon–bonne

Mais!!!

  • complet – complète
  • secret – secrète

–al, –in, –ain, –ein, –un deviennent –ale, –ine, –aine, –eine, –une

Exemples:

  • national–nationale
  • voisin – voisine
  • américain–américaine
  • plein–pleine
  • commun–commune

–eur devient –euse

Exemple:

  • moqueur–moqueuse

–teur devient –trice

Exemple:

  • protecteur–protectrice

Mais!!!

  • meilleur – meilleure
  • antérieur – antérieure
  • inférieur – inférieure
  • supérieur – supérieure

Les féminins irréguliers:

  • beau – belle
  • fou – folle
  • mou – molle
  • nouveau – nouvelle
  • vieux – vieille
  • public – publique
  • sec – sèche
  • doux – douce
  • blanc – blanche
  • favori – favorite
  • frais – fraîche
  • grec – grecque
  • long – longue
  • turc – turque
  • bas – basse
  • gros – grosse

Exemples:

  • un beau garçon – un bel arbre – une belle fille
  • un vieux monsieur – un vieil homme – une vieille dame
  • un nouveau livre – un nouvel hôtel – une nouvelle auto
  • un mou caractère – un mol ananas – une molle neige
  • un jour fou – un fol effort – une vache folle

(Bonne chance)

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    You might want to consider gender neutral adjectives as the rule rather than the exception. – GAM PUB Nov 29 '15 at 20:58

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