Mauvais genre






A compound noun comprises several words joined together like in portemanteau (carry-coat = coat hangeror presqu’île (nearly-island = peninsula), or hyphenated like in après-midi (afternoonor standing independently like in machine à écrire (machine to write = typewriter).  Compounds can be based on a noun or be converted words.



These compounds can be divided into two categories:

1) endocentric or explicit compounds

2) exocentric or implicit compounds

Let’s compare the following examples: 

The word pause-café takes the feminine gender of pause, as a pause-café is a break (pause f.) during which a coffee is taken. Pause is the “head” that gives the basic meaning and the gender to the compound. This category of compounds is called endocentric as opposed to exocentric which reveal their “head” only implicitly, like for instance the word terre-neuve (new land) takes the masculine gender of chien m. (dog) and not the feminine gender of  terre f. (land), a terre-neuve being a retriever originating from Terre-Neuve Island or Newfoundland.

Examples of  endocentric compounds (Gender is to be found inside the compound)


boucle d’oreille (lock of ear = earing) 

boule-de-neige (ball of snow = snowball) 

eau-de-vie (water of life = brandy) 

pause-café (break-coffee = coffee-break) 

pomme de terre (apple of earth = potato)

queue-de-cheval (tail of horse = ponytail) 

station-service (gas station) 

plate-bande (flat-band = flowerbed)

machine à coudre (sewing machine) 


bain-marie (bath-Mary = double boiler) 

bloc-notes (block of notes = notepad) 

sac-à-dos (bag on back = backpack) 

papier toilettes (paper toilets = toilet paper) 

point-virgule (full stop-comma = semicolon) 

radioréveil (radio-alarm) 

roman-photo (novel-picture = photo romance) 

bal musette (dance-accordion = popular dance)

pot-au-feu (pot on fire = stew)

 Examples of  exocentric compounds (Gender is to be found outside the compound)

In some cases, the “head” can be easily identify like in  rouge-gorge (oiseau m. à gorge rouge) but most of the time it is just assumed or can only be referred to as “something” or “someone"...


mi-temps (pause f.) half-time (periode)


mi-temps (travail m.), part-time (job)

rouge-gorge (oiseau m.), red-throat (bird) robin

haut-de-forme (chapeau m.), hight-shape (hat)

cinq étoiles (hôtel m.), five-stars (hotel) 

quatre roues (véhicule m.), four wheels (vehicle) 

deux-pièces (appartement m.), two-rooms (flat)

mille-feuilles (gâteau m.), thousand-leaves (cake)

mille-pattes (ver m.), thousand feet (worm)

terre-plein (mur plein de terre), earth-full (wall)



A converted word is a different part of speech (adjective, verb...) used as noun. Compounds based on converted words are masculine and exocentric.

 Verb based 

appuie-tête  (lean-head = headrest)

cache-nez   (hide-nose = wool scarf)

couvre-lit (cover-bed = bedspread)

ouvre-boîtes (open-boxes = can opener)

savoir-faire (know-do = knowhow)

copier coller (copy paste)

pousse-pousse (push-push = rickshaw)

cache-cache (hide-hide = hide and seek)

pique-nique (picnic)

rendez-vous (render-yourself = appointment)

 Locution based

tête-à-tête  (private conversation)

à-côtés (on the side = extra)

sur-mesure (on-measure = tailor-made)

dessous-de-table (under the table = bribery)

sans-faute (without-mistake = clear round)

chez-soi  (at home = home)

qu’en dira-t-on  ( what people say = gossip)

plus-que-parfait (more than perfect = pluperfect tense)

tout-à-l'égout (all to the sewer = main sewer)

See Grammatical Precedence


 Note 1

Compounds based on verb parer (to protect from) admit two masculine forms:

     pare- : pare-brise (windshield)pare-soleil (sun visor)pare-chocs (bumper)

     para- : parapluie(umbrella)parasol(sunshade)paratonnerre(lightning conductor)parachute 

The latter should not be confused with para- which means "next to, close to" like in learned compounds parabole, paraphrase or paragraphe

 Note 2

Beware of homonyms from the two categories of compounds:

 Noun based compounds

porte-fenêtre f.  (porte f.) French door

grille jeu f. (grille f.) Loto grid

chasse gardée f.  (chasse f.) private hunting

compte rendu m. (compte m.) record, account

couche-culotte f. (couche f.) diaper

 Verb based compounds

porte-monnaie m. (porter vb.) purse

grille-pain m. (griller vb.) toaster

chasse-neige m. (chasser vb.) snowplow

compte-gouttes m.  (compter vb.)  dropper

couche-tard m/f. (coucher vb.) night owl


Copyright © Ginette Guillard-Chamart 2009. All rights reserved.  

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