What is the most common source of mistakes of English-speakers in spoken French? It is undoubtedly grammatical gender or the LE/LA UN/UNE distinction. As many readers know, if you get the gender of a word wrong, it’s downhill all the way because the form of other words in the sentence depends on the gender of the headword.
So, when I designed my Essential French 1 calendar learning tool, I decided to devote a whole page or month to this very question. To make learners more aware of the importance of this problem, I focused on those words in French that are spelled the same or sound the same but differ only in gender.
Let’s look at some common examples:
1. le livre – la livre
LE livre is the book. LA livre is the unit of weight or the British currency. Here are two examples:
C’est un excellent livre de cuisine.
Donnez-moi une livre de pommes de terre.
2. le tour – la tour
LE tour is roughly translated as a circular distance or tour and enters into many expressions such as le tour de table, le tour d’horizon, le tour de taille. Think of Le tour de France, the famous bicycle race. LA tour is a tower. Think of La tour Eiffel. Here are some examples:
Je crois que nous avons fait le tour de la question.
À Toronto nous avons visité la tour CN.
3. le poste – la poste
LE poste is a job position, a police station or an accounting item. LA poste is the mail, the mail system or the post office. Here are some examples:
Le poste de travail n’est toujours pas comblé.
J’ai envoyé la lettre par la poste ce matin.
4. le somme – la somme
LE somme is a short nap or siesta. Many native speakers of French do not know this word. LA somme refers to a sum of money. Here are a couple of examples:
Tous les jours mon père fait un somme de 15 minutes.
Il fallait payer la somme de 50 euros.
5. le physique – la physique
LE physique is the appearance of the body. LA physique is the science. Here are some examples:
Le beau physique ne suffit pas. Il faut avoir un peu d’intelligence.
Je préfère la physique aux mathématiques.
In passing, note that a physicist is un physicien in French, and a physician is un médecin in French.
6. le moule – la moule
LE moule is the pan, dish or mold that one uses for baking cakes, pies, breads, etc. LA moule is the mussel that seafood lovers enjoy. Here are some examples:
Pour cette recette vous aurez besoin de deux moules à tarte moyens.
Les moules sont délicieuses.
7. le cours – la cour
LE cours is the course or class. LA cour is the court or courtyard. Here are some examples:
J’aime beaucoup le cours d’espagnol.
Voici les juges de la Cour suprême du Canada,
8. le capital – la capitale
LE capital is money ( plural les capitaux). LA capitale is the capital city. Some examples:
Nous avons réuni tout le capital nécessaire pour le projet.
La capitale de l’Italie est Rome.
9. le manche – la manche
LE manche is the handle of a tool or an instrument. LA manche is a sleeve or an inning in a sporting event. Some examples:
Prenez le marteau par le manche.
La manche droite de la chemise me paraît un peu longue.
10. le poêle – la poêle
LE poêle is a stove. LA poêle is a frying pan. Some examples:
Le poêle à bois peut servir de moyen de chauffage.
Mettez un peu d’huile dans la poêle pour les oeufs.
Conclusion: always remember the gender
As you can see, if you are not careful, you can think you are saying one thing but in fact you are saying something else. The general context will, of course, help your listener figure out what you want to say, but it is annoying to have to listen to someone saying the wrong thing all the time.
Some people have all kinds of strategies for associating gender with words. My preference is to simply learn a short phrase where the gender is highlighted. But that is just the beginning. Remember that many other words can depend on this word and should be modified accordingly.
What happens if you get stuck and you don’t remember whether it is le or la moule? Other than asking, you could read my blog post on this very topic.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.