Gender Neutral Pronouns in French: How can I use inclusive language and express the non-binary in French?
Since inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French are becoming more and more experimented with, we thought a guide on how to use them might help. Note that if you’re just beginning to learn French, you shouldn’t worry about mastering these rules – they keep changing and will keep doing so for a while. We will keep this page updated. But having an idea of what the French are currently doing can be very helpful.
Table of Contents
Change titles and professions depending on gender:
The masculine form has been traditionally used and considered ‘correct’ when talking about someone’s role or job. Now, you can make the word you use feminine when needed:
☞ She is/he is a famous author: C’est une autrice célèbre / c’est un auteur célèbre
☞ Ms/Mr Mayor: Madame la maire / Monsieur le maire
☞ She’s a professor : Elle est professeure
Note that sometimes several words are coexisting: along with ‘autrice’ and ‘chercheuse’, you will find ‘auteure’ or ‘chercheure’
Use the point médian:
For roles or when referring to a mixed gender group whether as a noun or adjective, the common practice is to include all forms of the word (masculine, feminine, and plural when relevant), generally separated by a dot called point médian in French, or middot in English.
☞ an engineer: un.e ingénieur.e ; an explorer: un.e explorateur.trice
☞ students: des étudiant.e.s
☞ French teachers: les enseignant.e.s français.e.s
Gender Neutral Pronouns in French:
An alternative to this is to use gender neutral words (or mots épicènes) such as le personnel instead of les employé.e.s, or to list both the masculine and feminine word: les historiens et les historiennes – which is how the point médian is sometimes read (les historien.ne.s).
To express the non-binary, use gender neutral pronouns in French:
While the English tends to use “they” to reflect the non-binary, in French the most common gender neutral pronoun is “iel” (singular) or “iels” (plural).
☞ “iel” and “iels” are both pronounced “yell” (with the liaison for the plural: iels_aiment = iels [z] aiment)
☞ Example as used in a sentence: “Iels ont fait un travail extraordinaire!” (They did an incredible job!)
☞ Note that there are many other forms of gender neutral pronouns in French, as well as gender neutral stress pronouns and possessive and demonstrative adjectives. For more, check out this great site in French or this article in English.
☞ If you’d like to ask “What are your pronouns?” or “Which pronouns do you use?”, you can say:
- Quels sont tes pronoms ?
- Quels pronoms utilises-tu ?
For more, here is a quick video guide (in French).
Are there any gender neutral pronouns in French?
The answer: Yes, now there are. But why hs it taken longer? The answer is pretty interesting. If you’ve been learning ‘le Français’, you might wonder if there are any gender neutral pronouns in French. After all, you probably noticed how heavily gendered French is: we have genders for inanimate objects, lots of professions don’t have a feminine form, and one infamous grammar rule is that ‘le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin’ (the masculine trumps the feminine). You could debate which is the culprit, is it truly the language, or simply the mentality being reflected by usage? Languages are a living entity after all, they change and evolve all the time. Only in France, the institutions seem to think there should be some sort of authority over language usage! Called l’Académie Française and created in the 17th century, one of its first decisions was to proclaim that the masculine gender should prevail over the feminine. Before that, the French language was much more fluid, and used feminine forms and agreements where it saw fit.
The controversy over gender neutral pronouns in French
Given this state of affairs, it is no surprise that in the last half century, many people have been questioning this absence of inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French, and trying to find solutions. The debate has been well and alive in Québec for over 50 years, while in France it has become more heated in the last few years. While the French themselves have come up with a number of options (see next section), many people oppose the use of inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French. They are worried that it will impoverish the language or be too difficult to learn. For example, while the dictionary Le Petit Robert decided to include the pronouns ‘iel’ or ‘iels’ in 2021 to reflect their growing usage, it sparked a heated discussion. And while more and more media are making efforts to use ‘l’écriture inclusive’ (inclusive writing, to include all gender rather than just the masculine), the French ministry of education has taken a hard stance against it, sparking even more controversy.
To learn more about the use of inclusive language in French
We hope the use of gender neutral pronouns in French makes more sense to you now. There are many references available if you want to go further on the subject, such as this article on the current debate across the francophone world, or this short program from the French radio program France Culture about how language is always tied to politics in France. For more complete guides on inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French, check out this in-depth explanation, or download these guides in French or in English.