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French Cross-Dressing Nouns

Perfect Switch Hitters:

I wanted to start the language section of my blog slowly with a simple, interesting post that has nothing to do with verb conjugation (these fun-filled tables can wait a few more weeks).  If you have studied French, then you are probably aware that nouns can be either masculine or feminine.  If this concept seems strange, then you should consider clicking on another blog section while you’re still ahead…  What some people are not aware of is that some French nouns can swing both ways, depending on whether they are preceded by “Le” or “La”.

Below is a table with several examples of these homonymes parfaites:

Masculin Feminin
le tour – to take a ride around, “Le Tour de France” or “faire un tour” (take a walk) la tour – the tower (“La Tour Eiffel”)
le livre – the book la livre – a unit of weight (pound)
le mode – the method or way of doing something la mode – fashion, style (à la mode)
le poste – the job position la poste – the post office
le voile –  the veil la voile – the sail
le manche – the handle (like on a knife) la manche – the sleeve (“La Manche” also is the French name for the English Channel)
le mémoire – the thesis la mémoire – memory
le foie – the liver la foi – faith
le moule – the mold la moule – the mussel
le somme – the small nap la somme – the sum
le poêle - the woodstove la poêle - the frying pan
le mort - the dead man la mort - death
le secrétaire - the small desk la secrétaire - the secretary
le critique - the critic la critique - the judgement

When speaking French, using the incorrect gender can completely mangle the meaning of your phrase (as well as generate some well-deserved snickering).  The phrases below nicely illustrate this point:

Il faut avoir la foi! - You must have faith!
Il faut avoir le foie! - You must have liver!

La somme de toutes les peurs - The sum of all fears
Le somme de toutes les peurs - The nap of all fears

Le mode d’emploi - The user’s manual
La mode d’emploi - Fashion/Trends in the workplace

Wanna Be Switch Hitters:

Fortunately there are only a handful of nouns that can take both masculine and feminine articles while keeping the same spelling.  It is also important to be aware that there are several other homonyms nouns in the French language with different spellings on paper, but exactly the same sound when spoken.  In these cases, choosing the wrong gender can be very confusing!  Below are just a few examples:


Masculin Feminin
le pot (the “t” is silent) – the pot1 la peau – the skin
le cours – the class (le cours de français) la cour – the king’s court, courtyard
le mal - evil / the male la malle - the trunk

In conclusion, I hope this article helps to demonstrate how important it is to memorize not only the spelling, but also the gender when learning French nouns.  Here is a common nursery rhyme to help you hone your skills:


Il était une fois,
Dans la ville de Foix,
Une marchande de foie,
Qui vendait du foie…
Elle se dit : Ma foi,
C’est la première fois
Et la dernière fois,
Que je vends du foie,
Dans la ville de Foix.

Once upon a time,
In the city of Foix,
A liver merchant,
Who was sellng liver…
She said to herself : My God,
It’s the first time
And the last time,
That I sell liver,
In the city of Foix.

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  1. for any parents out there, ”le pot” also means “the potty” []

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