Les gens: people talk, are talked about, they are all around us, they are everybody else but we are people, too.
In this article, you are going to crack the secret about this very special word.
So, what’s so special about people, or rather about the French word gens?
Gens is a hermaphroditic word. It is a noun that is always used in the plural form and that can be sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine.
Gens is always plural and is used to talk about an unspecified number of people. In the singular, you need to say “une personne”.
You have learnt that all nouns in the French language are either feminine or masculine. Well, that is true, but gens is so very special that it varies in gender.
In most cases, it is masculine:
- Les gens sont amusants. (People are funny)
- Tous les gens sont partis. Ils reviendront. (Everybody has gone. They’ll be back.)
- Il y a des gens assis sur un banc. (There are people sitting on a bench.)
Yet, when there is an adjective immediately before the word gens, and when the feminine form of that adjective differs from its masculine form, then the adjective(s) that you find before the word gens will need to be in the feminine form:
- Ce sont de bonnes gens. (They are good people)
- Ce sont de vieilles gens. (They are old people)
- Ce sont de bonnes vieilles gens. (They are good old people)
- Toutes les vieilles gens du village sont ici. (All the elderly from the village are here.)
Careful! Only the adjectives before gens take the feminine form. Everything that comes after the word gens remains in the masculine form:
- Toutes ces bonnes gens sont vraiment élégants. (All these good people are really stylish)
- Ces petites gens sont bons et courageux. (These people of modest means are honest and courageous)
Careful again! If you reverse the order of the different clauses of your sentence, the clause that was initially to be placed after the word gens but that you decided to put at the beginning of the sentence to improve its style, will remain in the masculine form:
- Ils sont vraiment élégants, toutes ces bonnes gens. (They are really stylish, all these good people)
- Ils sont bons et courageux, ces petites gens. (They are honest and courageous, these people of modest means)
Careful once more! When the adjective placed immediately before gens has the same form in the feminine and in the masculine, then you must use the masculine form:
- Tous ces braves gens sont vraiment passionnés (All these good souls are really passionate)
Careful yet again! When the word gens is followed by du, de or d’, even with adjectives where the feminine form differs from the masculine form, you need to use the masculine form:
- Tous ces surprenants gens du monde (All these surprising society people)
- Tous ces trop polis gens de loi (All this over polite legal profession)
- Tous ces passionnants gens d’esprit (All these fascinating, witty people)
To sum up, you only use the feminine form of an adjective if they are placed immediately before the noun gens and if the feminine form of the adjective in question is different from the masculine form.
What happens if you need several adjectives among which some have the same form as the masculine but others don’t?
In such a case, make all the adjective agree in the same way as the adjective closest to the word gens:
- Toutes ces souriantes, aimables, et courageuses gens sont un exemple à suivre. (All these smiling, nice and courageous people should be taken as a model) → The adjective immediately before gens is courageuse : the feminine is different from the masculins, all the adjectives are in the feminine form
- Tous ces courageux, souriants et aimables gens sont un exemple à suivre.(All these courageous, smiling and nice people should be taken as a model) → The adjective immediately before gens is aimable : the feminine and the masculine form are similar, all the adjectives are in the masculine form
There you are! You have now cracked the secret of the double gender of the word gens. Congratulations! 🙂