Recently I was surprised by the shock some people were professing that French people might have some problems getting the gender of nouns right. The other day I found a copy of Mauger’s “Grammaire pratique du français d’aujourd’hui” (Hachette, Paris, 1968) and the noun chapter includes an interesting section “Cas particuliers”, which I reproduce here. Section 26 is “nouns whose gender varies according to number”; 27 “nouns whose gender varies according to sense”; 28 “nouns whose gender the French don’t always agree on.”
An obvious point is that most of this latter group start with a vowel. I turned to Google to see whether any agreement has been reached, with results as follows:
après-midi: un 927k, une 435k; cet 1.75M, cette 488k.
automne: un 109k, une 1160; cet 721k, cette 20.7k; dernier 207k, dernière 623.
effluves: grands 21*, grandes 33*; doux 65*; douces 89*.
interview: un 130k, une 1.53M, cet 52.6k, cette 290k.
Rather feminine, by analogy with entrevue.
entrecôte: un 115*, une 796*. (French pages only)
orge: un 317*, une 236*. (French sites); mondé 464*, mondée 223*; blanc 78*, blanche 187*.
Confusion reigns, among the layperson** at least.
palabres: longs 288*, longues 365*
steppe: le 1390/253*, la 77,100/852*. (French sites)
Largely or overwhelmingly feminine, depending on which stat you favour, but there are still plenty of masculists out there.
Unsurprisingly, people make mistakes with even the most obvious genders. “le table”, for example, turns up on 870 French-language webpages and 467 .fr pages.
*Starred returns have been stripped. For example, if you use Google to search French-language pages for “le table” it announces that there are 37,700 matches. But if you click through the pages you find that there are in fact only 870 unique hits. I call this ghit-stripping.
**Although I spotted this error right away, I decided to leave it in. That makes 6 examples on the Web. 🙂