One of the eight parts of speech, a noun is commonly defined as "a person, place, or thing." If that seems vague, that’s because it is: nouns can be visible (water) or invisible (air), they can be concrete (books) or abstract (ideas). Some are commonplace (stones), some are rare (diamonds), and others are non-existent (unobtainium). Generally speaking, if you can use "a," "the," "some," or "this" in front of any stand-alone word, it’s a noun.
In French, all nouns have a gender. Stones and ideas are feminine, while books and diamonds are masculine. This can be hard to wrap your mind around, but it might help to think about gender in English, limited as it is. Girls and women are feminine, which is reflected grammatically in the use of "she" and "her," while boys and men are masculine: "he" and "his." The difference is that in French, grammatical gender has nothing to do with biological gender.
- livre – book
- idée – idea
- pierre – stone
- diamant – diamond
But rather, like this:
- un livre – book
- une idée – idea
- une pierre – stone
- un diamant – diamond
That way, the article will be attached to to the noun in your brain, and you won’t spend the next several years asking people (as those of us who did not learn genders and nouns together constantly do) "is ___ masculine or feminine?" Gender is an intrinsic part of French grammar – adjectives, certain pronouns, and even some verbs change to agree with the gender of the nouns they are used with, so by learning gender and nouns together, you’ll make all of these other aspects of French grammar that much easier.
Feminine Forms and Plurals
Some nouns referring to people and animals have different forms for masculine and feminine, and most nouns have different forms for singular and plural, which means there can be up to 4 forms of any given noun.
|masculine singular||masculine plural|
|feminine singular||feminine plural|
Feminine and/or plural endings are added to the default masculine singular form. For regular nouns, these endings are e for feminine and s for plural.
un étudiant (student)
|un étudiant||des étudiants|
|une étudiante||des étudiantes|
When the default form of the noun ends in s, x, or z, the singular and plural forms are the same.
|une brebis||des brebis||ewe(s)|
|un choix||des choix||choice(s)|
|un nez||des nez||nose(s)|
When the default form of the adjective ends in e, the masculine and feminine forms are the same.
un artiste (artist)
|un artiste||des artistes|
|une artiste||des artistes|
A few nouns have completely different masculine and feminine equivalents.
And of course there are some irregular feminine and plural patterns: