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When you're referring to a job, you use the correct indefinite or definite article:

un médecin

l'informaticienne

However, when you are saying to be a [profession], the article is omitted:

Je voudrais être médecin

Elle est informaticienne

Why is this? It seems that generally French always uses articles with nouns, much more so than English does, but this seems to be a peculiar exception. Is there a particular reason?

  • You are right: we tend to often use more article in French than in English (this obvious with sports, for instance: "I play soccer." = "Je joue au football."). I am not sure and an answer may prove me wrong, but maybe this is related to the fact that the profession is a qualification, and maybe is treated like an adjective somehow. You will however need an article if you define more precisely the profession: "Je suis le médecin qui vous a soigné." – Chop Jul 2 '15 at 5:39
  • That should be l'informaticienne. I can't answer the question in historical terms, but I'll note that Spanish works the same way as French in this regard. I would say that in "Pierre est médecin", the word médecin is, on a psychological level at least, akin to an adjective, even though it's a noun. That's because you're categorizing Pierre. For example, if you say "Que fait Pierre?" the answer is "Il est médecin". But in reply to "Qui est ton ami?" the answer is more likely to be "C'est un médecin". And you can only say "Pierre est un médecin chevronné", never "Il est médecin chevronné." – Keith Jul 2 '15 at 5:41
  • Let me add that in answer to "Que fait Pierre?", both "il est médecin" and "c'est un médecin" are possible. – Keith Jul 2 '15 at 6:02
  • Thanks to everyone who commented. I suspected that it was something to do with the profession behaving as an adjective, but I wasn't sure. – shea Jul 2 '15 at 11:39
9

I found a rule book explaining why and how.

The why is because it is this noun is used as an adjective (as @Chop said in comment) :

Devant un nom en fonction d’attribut indiquant une profession, il n’y a normalement pas d’article. Ceci s’explique par le fait que quand le nom est employé pour désigner une profession, il est as­si­milable à un adjectif. (voir p. 281 et p. 292)

Pierre est architecte. Ses parents étaient agriculteurs.
M. Boutefeu est traducteur. Son père est dentiste.

Toutes ces phrases répondent à la question « quelle est la profession de X ? » :

Quelle est la profession de ses parents ? Ils sont agriculteurs.
Quelle est la profession de notre voisin ? Il est ramoneur.

It also agrees with @Keith comments : it must be used without complement :

On emploie l’article zéro dans ce cas uniquement si le nom est utilisé sans complément. Si on le dé­ter­mine ou on le complète avec un élément particulier (un possessif, un adjectif, une proposition relative etc.), il faut utiliser un article :

Qui est Pierre ?
— Pierre est un architecte renommé.

The explanation is that we don't ask about his job but about him : "who is he?".

En effet, dans ce cas-là, on ne répond plus à la question « quelle est la profession de X ? » (architecte célèbre n’est pas une profession, le dentiste de notre famille non plus), mais à la question « qui est X ? », à laquelle on répond en général par c’est… (p. 281). [...]


There is also a part when the name profession is detached from the rest of the sentence, you still don't use article :

Quand le nom de profession est placé en position détachée en tête de phrase, il reste sans article. C’est ainsi que s’explique l’absence d’article après de dans les phrases suivantes :

Il était boxeur, maintenant il est devenu chanteur. → De boxeur, il est devenu chanteur.

Avec un adjectif, ce serait le même modèle :

Il était déjà impertinent, mais maintenant il est devenu franchement malpoli. → D' impertinent, il est devenu franchement malpoli.


It is also referenced here, on 5th part, with some exercises if you want to practice but I'm afraid those aren't on the topic.

  • Merci beaucoup pour la réponse détaillée ! – shea Jul 2 '15 at 11:46
  • @shea Il n'y a pas grand chose de moi, je n'ai fait que rassembler les commentaires et la leçon que j'ai trouvé. ;) Content d'avoir pu t'aider ! – Yohann V. Jul 2 '15 at 11:47
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    That site you mentioned looks quite useful, too – shea Jul 2 '15 at 11:50
  • @shea It is for Finnish, some notes may be particular to this language but the majority is clear and worth reading ! ;) – Yohann V. Jul 2 '15 at 11:58
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    NB. The attributive construction can be used with NPs if the noun complement brings a type rather than a description: Pierre est architecte naval, Marie est mère au foyer. – GAM PUB Jul 4 '15 at 5:10
3

It is not always être, it is not always a profession, it is not always one verb, and it is not always one noun.

  • Quand j'étais enfant.
  • Ils sont cousins.
  • Il demeure Président du Conseil d'administration.
  • Marc et Marie sont frère et soeur.
  • Je veux être ingénieur.
  • On est devenus architectes.

What are these verbs? - Stative, Linking, or Copulative?

They are stative verbs, specifically linking verbs, and include the copulas. The majority of the internet (in two languages) seems to confuse these three terms and use them interchangeably. A stative verb (verbe d'état) expresses a state of being, not an action. The verbs include "to think, feel, see, have, smell, depend, penser, sembler, dépender de, étonner etc). Some stative verbs link attributes to the subject, hence they are called linking verbs (verbes attributifs). These specific stative verbs must have a predicate adjective or nominative after the verb (get, turn, grew, avoir l'air, passer pour, s'appeler, etc). The copulas (copules) or copulative verbs (verbes copulatif), are mores specific and have no other extra meaning than to link the P.A. or P.N. to the subject. English and French only have one: (to be, être). Other languages like Russian and Japanese simply leave them out, while languages like Spanish and Italian (ser vs estar) have two in order to denote the permanence of the predicate's arguments. You will hear linking verbs sometimes called (semi-copulas), but I digress.

Okay... so what about the nouns?

It is used to talk about professions, but not job descriptions. It is used to talk about religions, but usually these words are already adjectives. It it used to talk about family members, but mainly in the plural (frère et soeur, cousins, parents, etc), or for a person who cannot have a job (enfant / gamin). This seems to describe the function in the family, or more specifically the name of the role in the family, in a group, in a life, or in a job. Not all linking verbs can be used with a Predicate Nominative, specifically as a role, so we make a list.

My proposed formula:

[Subject]
+
[Verb Phrase ending with: être, (re)devenir, (re)nommer, rester, demeurer, (ré)élire]
+
[Noun Phrase that describes the name of a person's role being used as an adjective]

Or the condensed version:

[sujet] + [verbe attributif] + [rôle]

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