Got Savoir-faire? How to Master French Compound Nouns
Ah, those infamous compound nouns.
They’re like linguistic high-fives—two words slapped together to make something awesome.
You might recognize them as the culprits behind German’s unbelievably long, hard-to-pronounce words.
Well, what if I told you German isn’t the only language with those fancy-schmancy, oh-so-whimsical-sounding word constructions?
That’s right, folks! It turns out lots of languages actually have compound words.
We’ve got ’em in English and—you guessed it—we’ve got ’em in French, too (and they’re not the only fun words we have in French, either)!
But learning how to use French compound nouns can often be one of the most confusing and daunting parts of learning French. And oddly enough, many French grammar textbooks don’t even give them the time of day.
But hey, we can’t let the German-language-learners have all the fun!
It’s time for us to show off our French compound noun savoir-faire and prove that French compound nouns can be just as fun, once you master them!
Below, you’ll find a rundown of the general rules for using French compound nouns. It’s not an exhaustive explanation, but it’ll give you enough information to get started showing off those compound nouns tout de suite.
What in the Name of Scary-sounding-grammatical-jargon Is a Compound Noun?
To make things easy, let’s walk through what makes a compound noun step-by-step.
Simply put, a compound noun is a noun made up of two or more words.
A compound noun is just a fancy way of saying it’s a noun that’s made up of two or more words. In English, think toothpick, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
The two words in a compound noun can be various combinations of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.
In French, compound nouns can be formed using various combinations of the different parts of speech. Later in this post, we’ll see there are several different ways nouns, verbs, adverbs and more can pair up to create compound nouns.
The two words might be separated by a hyphen… or not.
Some French compound nouns are formed without a hyphen and others are formed with a hyphen.
For example, un portefeuille (a wallet) has no hyphen, but un coffre-fort (a safe) does.
We’re going to focus mostly on hyphenated ones throughout this post, as those tend to be tricky for English speakers.
Fun fact: hyphenation in English compound nouns has actually been a source of contention for a while, and the history behind compound nouns and hyphenation is actually pretty interesting, too!
Got Savoir-faire? How to Master French Compound Nouns
Here’s your step-by-step guide to identifying and using French compound nouns.
Want to know how to form compound nouns? We’ve got you covered!
Need to know how to determine their gender? Look no further!
Itching to know how to pluralize these babies? You’ve come to the right place!
Just have to know how to use them in context? We’ve got you covered there, too!
1. Identifying Compound Nouns Made Up of at Least One Noun
Noun + Noun
First of all, you’ve got your noun + noun combo, as in un oiseau-mouche, or hummingbird. In this case, both oiseau (bird) and mouche (fly) are nouns.
When joined together with a hyphen, oiseau-mouche, which literally means bird-fly, becomes hummingbird. Tada!
Noun + Preposition + Noun
And sometimes, there’s a preposition thrown in between two nouns, as in un arc-en-ciel, or rainbow.
Arc and ciel are both nouns, meaning “arch/bow” and “sky,” respectively, but combined with the preposition en, they form “bow-in-sky” or, as we English-speakers know it, “rainbow.”
Preposition + Noun
Or you can have just a preposition and a noun, as in après-midi (afternoon.) Après is a preposition, meaning “after.” Midi is a noun, which means “noon.” So, together, they form après-midi, “after-noon,” or simply “afternoon.” Simple as that!
Noun + Adjective
Then there’s the noun + adjective construction, as in un cerf-volant, or kite.
Here’s a nice example of how French compound nouns can get a bit abstract. Cerf is a noun meaning “deer,” volant is an adjective meaning “flying.” Cerf-volant literally means “deer-flying,” but its English meaning is “kite.”
Adverb + Noun
As in un haut-parleur, or loudspeaker. Haut is an adjective, meaning “high” or “loud,” and parleur is a noun, meaning “speaker.” Together, they form “loud-speaker,” or simply… “loudspeaker.”
Verb + Noun
As in un couvre-lit, or bedspread. Couvre comes from the noun couvrir, meaning “to cover.” Lit is a noun, meaning “bed.”
Together, they form couvre-lit, literally “cover-bed,” but put simply in English it’s a bedspread.
2. Identifying Compound Nouns Created Without a Noun
Verb + Verb
You can have a verb + verb combo, as in le savoir-faire, or know-how. Savoir means “to know” and faire means “to do.”
You’ve probably heard people slip this expression into their English conversations before. “Your Spanish is really wonderful, but your French savoir-faire is somewhat lacking…” said no one ever to you!
Adjective + Adjective
As in une douce-amère, or woody nightshade. Douce and amère are both adjectives, meaning “sweet” and “bitter,” respectively. When joined together with a hyphen, they act as the noun “woody nightshade,” which is a species of vine native to Europe and Asia.
Of course, you’ve got longer combinations too, like the classic je-ne-sais-quoi (I-don’t-know-what) that English-speakers looooove to use when they want to sound chic: “Oh, I don’t know, he just has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi…”
3. Determining the Gender of Compound Nouns
Okay, so there are a lot of different combos… but if you ever want to use any of these in a complete French sentence, you better know their gender! It’s already hard enough to remember the genders of individual nouns… how are you ever supposed to remember these?
Lucky for you, we’ve written out the general rules here for you to follow.
- Noun + noun takes the gender of the principle noun in the construction. The principle noun is the one that seems to be the most important in the compound noun. This is usually the first noun in the structure, but you can always confirm that using a dictionary.
For example, un oiseau-mouche (hummingbird) is masculine. Oiseau is a masculine noun, and mouche is feminine, but oiseau isn’t only the first noun, but also the principle noun (since hummingbirds are more birds than they are flies, after all…).
- Noun + adjective takes the gender of the noun.
Un cerf-volant (kite) is masculine because the noun in the construction, cerf (deer), is masculine.
- Verb + noun and preposition + noun are usually masculine.
Think un couvre-lit (bedspread) and un en-tête (heading).
There are some exceptions to this rule, however, so be sure to check with a dictionary when using a compound noun that you’re not too familiar with.
- Adjective + adjective (usually) takes the shared gender of the adjectives.
Usually, the two adjectives in the compound noun are already in the same gender, as in une douce-amère, which is a feminine compound noun because both douce and amère are the feminine forms of doux and amer.
However, there are some more tricky examples, like nouveau-né and nouveau-née, meaning a boy newborn and a girl newborn, respectively. In the instance of nouveau-née, you’ve got two adjectives, but nouveau is a masculinized adjective and née is a femininized adjective… so which gender article do you use, masculine or feminine?
Well, for instances like this one, just think of which adjective better describes the essence of the compound noun. So, which do you think would be the principle, or more important, adjective: né(e) (born) or nouveau (new)?
If you’re thinking né(e), you’re right! So, if you see né, you’ll use un/le, and if you see née, you’ll use une/la: un nouveau-né, but une nouveau-née. Oh, and when in doubt, just check with a dictionary!
- Everything else is usually masculine. For all other combinations, you can generally assume they’ll take the masculine article. (But, when in doubt, always double check with a dictionary, just in case!)
4. Forming the Plural of Compound Nouns
Forming the plural of compound nouns can be a bit more complicated than determining their gender.
But don’t worry, we’ll walk you through it and you’ll be a compound noun pro in no time!
In noun + noun and noun + adjective constructions, both words take the plural form.
Regarde les oiseaux-mouches! (Look at the hummingbirds!)
Le garçon a trois cerfs-volants. (The boy has three kites.)
In noun + preposition + noun, the first noun is sometimes pluralized, but the preposition and second noun never take the plural form.
Il y a deux arcs-en-ciel! (There are two rainbows!)
Think of it this way: there can be multiple bows in the sky, but there’s only one sky in which they appear.
But other times, the entire compound noun remains the same and only the article indicates that the compound noun has been pluralized, as in les tête-à-tête (the one-on-one discussions).
With adjective + adjective constructions, both adjectives take the plural form… usually!
For example, une douce-amère becomes les douces-amères, simple as that.
But remember how nouveau-née (newborn) is a feminine compound noun even though nouveau is in the masculine form?
Well, similarly, when pluralizing nouveau-né(e), focus on the principle adjective (né or née). So nouveau-né becomes nouveau-nés and nouveau-née becomes nouveau-nées.
Verbs, prepositions and adverbs are never pluralized.
With verb + noun, preposition + noun and adverb + noun pairs, the verb/preposition/adverb always remains the same.
The noun is the one that takes the plural form. (But always check with a dictionary since some nouns in these constructions may remain invariable.)
J’ai un couvre-lit, mais il a deux couvre-lits. (I have one bedspread, but he has two bedspreads.)
Est-ce qu’il y a un en-tête? Oui, il y a deux en-têtes. (Is there a header? Yes, there are two headers.)
Est-ce qu’il y a un haut-parleur? Oui, il y a trois haut-parleurs! (Is there a loudspeaker? Yes, there are three loudspeakers!)
And verb + verb structures remain the same since verbs can never be pluralized.
Some Important Things to Keep in Mind When Pluralizing:
- Always look at how a word is being used in the context of any given compound noun. Beware of tricky words like garde that can be used either as a noun or as a verb. (If it’s used as a noun, it gets an -s at the end. If it’s used as a verb, it remains the same.)
- Watch out for singular compound nouns that end in -s. Compound nouns like le porte-parapluies, or umbrella stand, which end with an -s in the singular, remain the same in the plural form… because they’ve already got the -s!
- Beware of the infamous exceptions. There are always exceptions, so be sure to check with a dictionary when pluralizing a compound noun you haven’t used before. Pluralizing compound nouns can be tricky and while this outline of the general rules will help you out a lot, always be sure to watch out for those pesky exceptions!
That’s all, friends! Go forth and show off your French compound noun savoir-faire to all your friends—especially those German-speaking friends of yours!