You can speak French fluently. It just rolls off your tongue, n’est-ce pas? The complex verb system is not a big problem. But from time to time you run into an annoying problem: you forget if a noun is feminine or masculine. Or you have an moment of doubt. Is it un or une violencelle, le or la pétoncle, le ou la cimetière, le ou la dent? By the way, those words are all le except for la dent.
You know how important this is in French because things like the right choice of adjective, article and pronoun form depends on the gender of the key noun.
Let’s say you’re talking about some legal matter and you want to use the word litige (litigation), is it la or le litige? This is tricky because it really looks feminine and reminds you of the the word la tige (stem, shaft). What do you do?
Whatever you do, don’t say la litige because that is wrong, it should be le litige.
Before we look at various strategies of getting around this potentially embarassing problem, I should point out that many non-native speakers of French are totally oblivious to the problem and don’t realize that they are making a major grammatical booboo until it is pointed out to them.
And there is nothing more embarassing than realizing that you have been making this very noticeable mistake all along, and nobody has ever corrected you.
Here is a number of ways of addressing the issue while you are talking.
1. Ask your interlocutor
There is no shame in discreetly asking the other person, “Le litige ou la litige ?” Just quickly weave it into the conversation, grab the answer and get back to the main subject. People are always willing to help, and this is better than using the wrong form repeatedly. Just don’t make a big issue out of it.
2. Avoid it
Obviously, if you not sure of the gender of a word, you may want to avoid it completely and find some synonym that you are sure about. In our example, you could use the word le procès as an approximate alternative.
3. Use the plural form
Remember that in the plural the articles le and la both become les and un and une become des. So maybe you could get by with les or des litiges. You could then say things like beaucoup de litiges, pas de litiges or peu de litiges. Of course, this doesn’t help with adjectives referring to the noun.
4. Embed it in a phrase
This is a good coping strategy when you are really stuck. Put the target word into a phrase like une sorte de, une espèce de or un genre de. Here are two examples:
Je ne voulais pas créer une espèce de litige avec l’adversaire. (I didn’t want to create a kind of litigation with the other side.)
Elle aime beaucoup ce genre de litige. (She really likes this kind of litigation.)
Remember that these workarounds are at best crutches and often make for awkward phrasing. The best solution is to learn the right gender from the beginning or simply ask.