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I'm overall an intermediate learner (with elementary knowledge in some areas but more advanced than intermediate in others). One area that I'm still struggling with big time, is the gender of words and the complexities of creating agreement.

For instance, sometimes there is no noun (sometimes there is one, but I can't find it).

  • Example 1: I mention some infinitive verb or a gerund (e.g. "to live in fear" or "shopping") and then say "is tiring". Where is the noun/noun phrase and what gender is it? So should I say Fatigant/fatigante?

  • Example 2: I mention some recent news and then say that it is really bad. But what is bad? So mauvais/mauvaise?

  • Example 3a: Imagine a written sentence is being criticized by a teacher and thus put in quotation marks, followed by the words "is wrong!" If the whole sentence has a gender, what is it? And so should I choose Faux/Fausse?

  • Example 3b: Perhaps this teacher follows up by saying that, "It's more accurate to instead say....". Again, what is "it" referring to? Would he say "plus précis/e"?

There are better examples obviously; these are just off the top of my head to illustrate the problem I need help with, which is choosing the right gender when there is no simple noun as the subject of the sentence.

Appreciate your help.

  • 1
    Unless speaking specifically about a feminine thing, one uses masculine, e.g Le bel argent or Que c'est fatigant ! – Blue_Elephant Sep 26 '16 at 7:36
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    for casual conversations, don't worry too much about that : mistakes are (often) cute and/of funny! Do pay attention to it in written form and in formal environments, but again, noone should be too upset if you mistake one gender for another (unless when adressing a person!) – Olivier Dulac Sep 26 '16 at 12:49
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First, French has no third gender for neutral. Grammatically, if something has no gender, the masculine will be used. So if there is no noun, you will make your sentence masculine. Let's have a look at your examples one by one:


Exemple 1: [Le shopping/Vivre avec la peur au ventre] est fatigant

You see that "shopping" is masculine, as most English words are. And the nominal group "Vivre avec la peur au ventre" has no gender, so is masculine.


Exemple 2: Les nouvelles sont très mauvaises
J'ai une très mauvaise nouvelle à vous annoncer

Here, "nouvelle" is feminine, so "mauvaise" agrees with the noun.


Exemple 3a: "Je suis mangé du pain" est faux
La phrase "Je suis mangé du pain" est fausse

Here, you have both cases. If there is no noun, then it's masculine.
If you say "la phrase", then there is a gender, because "la phrase" is feminine.


Exemple 3b: [Il est/c'est] plus précis de dire "J'ai mangé du pain"
La phrase "J'ai mangé du pain" est plus précise
Plus précisément, on devrait dire "J'ai mangé du pain"

The first "il" is neutral. The first two sentences follow the same rule as the previous example (about "faux").
Also "précis(e)" does not really seem to fit here, but saying "plus précisément" sound more natural, saying you are giving more details about what you just said before.

  • I see, so to use the first example, first you check for the subject's gender, the verb in the example of shopping, or nominal group in the example of living in fear, right? Can it be that the verb in the nominal group having one gender but the expression as a whole having another, especially if it's a fixed expression? – Jlente Sep 27 '16 at 19:51
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    @Jlente Be careful: "shopping" is not a verbe, but a noun here. You may say "faire du shopping est fatigant", but "shopping" is still not a verb... You may also say "faire de la plongée est fatigant", even if "plongée" is feminine, because you agree with "faire de la plonger", not "la plongée". To agree with "la plongée", the sentence must be "la plongée est fatigante". – Random Sep 28 '16 at 6:19
  • Thank you very much Random. I was not expecting this thread to generate such interest and good responses but I think yours has been most helpful and comprehensive, so I am choosing it as the "answer" for my question. Thanks everyone. – Jlente Sep 28 '16 at 6:28
  • ça c'est très très discuté parmi les linguistes. On ne peut pas dire "le français n'a pas de neutre", parce que beaucoup de linguistes diront exactement le contraire. Il y a indubitablement des traces de neutres en français. L'impersonnel, "ça", "il" est une forme de neutre, le fait d'utiliser le masculin "docteur" etc, est une forme de neutre... – Quidam Dec 20 '16 at 11:21
  • @PERCE-NEIGE le neutre masculin tu veux dire... ? En allemand, le neutre est une 3eme forme distincte du masculin et du féminin. En français, c'est le pronom masculin qui est considéré neutre... donc fonctionnellement oui il y a un pronom neutre, mais concrètement, c'est le masculin... – Random Dec 21 '16 at 14:35
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Random's answer is a good explaination about the neutral gender. There is another particularity in french language: le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin (masculine is stronger than feminine). It means that if an adjective qualifies both a masculine (or neutral) and feminine word, it must be masculine. Examples

  • cette vache est blanche (vache is feminine, so is blanche)
  • ce cheval est blanc (cheval is masculine, so is blanc)
  • cette chèvre et cette vache sont blanches (both chèvre and vache are feminine => blanches is plural feminine)
  • ce cheval et cette vache sont blancs

In last sentence, cheval is masculine and vache is feminine. The adjective blancs is plural (2 animals) and masculine because le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin.

  • 1
    The same rule (a mixed set of feminine and masculine nouns collectively counts as masculine) exists in Spanish. Your vache, cheval, and chèvre examples work the same there. Esta vaca es blanca - "This cow (fem.) is white". Este caballo es blanco - "This horse (masc.) is white". Esta cabra y esta vaca son blancas - "This goat (fem.) and this cow (fem.) are white (fem. plural)". Este caballo y esta vaca son blancos - "This horse (masc.) and this cow (fem.) are white (masc. plural)". – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Sep 26 '16 at 14:02
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    @PapaPoule yes, it does. But you mean cavalière (a chevalière is a jewel) :) – Quentin Sep 26 '16 at 15:35
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    @PapaPoule did you want to mean "Knight" or "Horserider" by "chevalière" ? I think for a knight beeing a woman, "chevalière" should be fine, even if not common (at all ?) :) – Random Sep 26 '16 at 17:11
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    Yes, chevalière is the feminine of chevalier (historically unknown), but also means a signet ring. – Urhixidur Sep 26 '16 at 17:20
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    @Random Quentin was right; I did mean “cavalière” (for the rather French-sounding noun “equestrienne”). I’m glad that chevalière could be understood today as “woman Knight,” but I wonder if such a Knight being “historically unknown” (per Urhixidur) helps explain the historical reasoning behind arguably sexist-sounding rules such as this one? (English has ‘em too!) Maybe "En cas de double genre, on passe au neutre" would sound "better" but as you state, “French has no [distinct] 3rd gender for neutral” so one could still ask why French’s neuter defaults to the masculine & not the feminine. – Papa Poule Sep 26 '16 at 22:04

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