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Quand j'étais enfant, j'aimais ...

If the person is female, should we use enfante? Similarly, in

Quand nous étions enfant, nous aimions ...

should we use enfant(e)s? Enfant is a noun that behaves like an adjective, so I think it should have an ending like an adjective in both cases.

Similar questions for parent:

Quand je serai parent, je serai strict(e) avec mes enfants.

Do we need to use parente if the person is female?

Quand nous serons parent, nous serons ...

should we use parent(e)s?

  • AFAIK, there's nothing particularly adjectival about "enfant". If you're referring to the lack of an article, that's more due to the syntactic structure that seems to be used for an assertion of identity (il est prof, tu es médicin, je suis canadien) — the nature of which is a good question on its own. – Luke Sawczak Feb 25 '17 at 2:56
  • @LukeSawczak But in those cases we have to change the ending if the noun is feminine or plural, right? (Elle est canadienne, Nous sommes canadien(ne)s) Whereas in the cases of enfant and parent, the rule seems to be different. – user11550 Feb 25 '17 at 3:07
  • Formulating an answer now. :) But quickly — it's not a function of the noun/adjective status of the word in that slot. They're just nouns of different types. – Luke Sawczak Feb 25 '17 at 3:24
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    @user11550 - I changed my answer a bit - I now think that enfants (plural) would be more correct, or at least much more grammatically correct. – Frank Feb 25 '17 at 3:42
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Even for a girl, we say:

Quand j'étais enfant, ...

enfante IMHO is not the feminine form of enfant. cf CNRTL.

For this one:

Quand nous étions enfant, nous aimions ...

I would say that you have to use enfants (plural). I don't really see a reason that would allow you to escape the agreement - unless maybe if you considered "être enfant" to be a fixed expression. But I don't know if you would have a very strong case. However, ngrams shows that both are used, with a very strong preference for enfants (plural). The references given by ngrams don't seem to point to the singular being only a mistake. It seems to be a true usage.

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Same analysis for parent, except that parente is this time the feminine form of parent (CNRTL).

  • Just to confirm: When you say "Same analysis for parent", you mean that a girl would say Quand je serai parent, even though the form parente exists, right? – user11550 Feb 25 '17 at 5:57
  • @user11550 - probably. I think parente is more "specialized" in a sense. I could see both being used though. But she would probably say something else, like Quand j'aurais des enfants, which sounds a lot more natural. – Frank Feb 25 '17 at 17:44
  • What do you mean parente is more "specialized"? – user11550 Feb 25 '17 at 18:09
  • @user11550 - it's not a word we use a lot. Une parente is OK, in e.g. une parente du défunt, but I wouldn't expect to hear je suis la parente de X, or je vais être parente. Actually, I think we tend to use les parents in the plural more than parent or parente in isolation. – Frank Feb 25 '17 at 18:12
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This same question applies to a wide range of questions that appear to have a set gender but are clearly used for people of different genders: enfant, parent, but also professeur as it once was (professeure has existed only "since the end of the 20th century"). In fact, the word personne itself has seemingly the opposite issue for men — your average Joe is une personne. :)

The grammatical term for this kind of word is "epicene" and

... can be used in two distinct situations:

  • [when] the same word can refer to both masculine and feminine antecedents ...

  • [when] a noun or adjective has identical masculine and feminine forms ...

(Wikipedia)

The first case would be like personne. No matter the gender of the person meant, the determiners, adjectives, etc. will always agree with personne as feminine. (At least AFAIK.)

Dictionaries often refer to this as simply "nm" or "nf", as the case may be.

The second case would be where the form is identical but the grammatical gender changes, and hence surfaces in words that agree. Enfant is actually the very example Wikipedia gives. It is possible to say un enfant or une enfant, and likewise un petit enfant vs. une petite enfant.

Dictionaries often refer to this as "nmf".

The third option is that there are two corresponding forms of the same word, of which one is masculine and the other is feminine. French is full of this kind of thing too. An example would be chat and chatte — or even phonologically dissimilar variants like acteur and actrice.

Dictionaries often refer to this as "nm/nf" and/or list both variants (e.g. "ours, e").

If you're unsure and your dictionary doesn't list it clearly, then as Frank has done, you can distinguish between these cases using Ngrams. For example, parent is listed in Collins as "parent, e". If you were trying to verify this independently, you can show that une parente is well attested but une parent is not:

Distinguishing the two types of epicene

This rules out the second case ("nmf").

However, it's a little harder to distinguish between invariant words and words with two forms. Une parent is out, but how do you know that you wouldn't say "C'est un parent" where ce refers to a woman? It certainly helps to know that une parente exists; if it didn't, we could assume parent was an epicene word. But between une parente and an invariable un parent, I would say it's hard to know what significance the 0.00005% usage of une parente has in the bigger picture without a way to disentangle the antecedent in phrases like "C'est un parent".


For the plural, the closest parallel term is probably indénombrable. (English count/mass noun is nearly the same thing, but doesn't, to my knowledge, include an equivalent for nouns like des pâtes that are plural but still cannot be individually counted as e.g. deux pâtes.)

Luckily, nouns for people and animals in French tend to be unambiguously dénombrable.* So if your subject is plural, as nous is, then enfants is the one you want.

* Except, of course, for "le monde" and "les gens"!

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    For un parent, I think we would say une parente if it was a woman. We wouldn't say un parent, as you say. Nous serons parents, symmetrical of nous étions enfants works perfectly. – Frank Feb 25 '17 at 5:07

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