Masculine Possessive Adjectives With Feminine Nouns
Even though the word "water" (eau) is feminine, the possessive adjective that precedes it is not "ma", but "mon". That is because the word "eau" starts with a vowel. For any singular word beginning in a vowel, use mon/ton/son regardless of the word's gender.
(source [french] : http://188.8.131.52/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=4157)
The possessive adjective varies depending on the possessor, the number and also the gender, at least when it represents the first, second or third person singular. Indeed, "ma/ta/sa" are the feminine forms of the singular corresponding to the masculine "mon/ton/son" whereas "mes/tes"ses" are used for the plural of both feminine and masculine nouns.
- Ma mère est allée au Danemark l'été dernier mais mes sœurs sont restées ici.
- Ta honte et tes hésitations sont bien compréhensibles.
- As-tu remarqué sa nouvelle robe et ses belles chaussures?
Yet, when the possessive adjective precedes a feminine word starting with a vowel or a silent h, we use "mon/ton/son" instead of the feminine forms "ma/ta/sa". This substitution allows, just like with the elision of "le" and "la" (-> l' ), to prevent encountering two consecutive vowels when speaking.
- Je te présente mon amie Nadia.
- Ton ancienne maison était plus petite que celle-ci.
- Je lui raconterai son histoire préférée.
There are however a few situations when we use the regular feminine forms of the possessive adjectives before a feminine noun beginning with a vowel or a silent h. It's the case before "onze" (eleven) and its derivatives as well as before "yole" (yes, the boat). Before "hyène" (hyena) and "ouate" (cotton wool) the use of the masculine forms is optional; both forms are possible. In short, using the masculine forms of possessive adjectives before a feminine noun is forbidden in the same contexts as those in which elision is forbidden.
- Ce sera ma onzième tentative.
- Ta ouate est particulièrement douce. (or : ton ouate)
In old french, we didn't use the masculine forms of possessive adjectives in this context; instead we used to elide the "a" from the feminine forms just like we do today for the "a" from "la" (l'eau). One would therefore have written "m'enfance" for "ma enfance". It's only at the end of the 12th century that we've started to use masculine forms before feminine words beginning with a vowel or a silent h. For some time, elided forms " m' / t' / s' " where used concurrently with the masculine forms. However, since the 16th century the elided forms were practically not used anymore, except in idioms "m'amie" et "m'amour". We still have traces of the elided forms of the possessive adjectives in these two idioms that we now more often write "ma mie" (for a dear female friend, or mamie, synonym of grand-ma) and mamours (synonym of caresses)
In very short :
Masculine words : mon/ton/son (ex. mon camion, ton clavier, son frère)
Feminine words : ma/ta/sa (ex. ma voiture, ta chaise, sa soeur)
Feminine words starting with a vowel or silent h : mon/ton/son (ex. mon automobile, ton histoire, son image)
Masculine and Feminine words : mes/tes/ses
You'll find the explanation as to why this is in the last paragraph of my previous comment and exceptions in the 3rd paragraph (followed by examples).
@sephquartz: Duolingo is telling you this - by an insight note from a duolingo community member :)
And this occurs only in the singular? So it would be "mon enfant" and "mes enfants", correct?
@boxbot: it is "mes" for both masculine and feminine. If the word starts with a vowel, the "s" in "mes" is pronounced as "z", otherwise it is muted.
When the word that is being describes starts with a vowel, the possessive adjective, regardless of gender, will be masculine. Ex. Mon ami, mon Amie.
It's the same for "image" ,"automobile" and all feminine words starting with a vowel. Instead of ma/ta/sa/ you have to use mon/ton/son. I don't know for sure where this comes from but maybe it has to do with the following :
When pronouncing words starting with a vowel in a sentence, you have to do the "liaison" between the last letter of the previous word; For example, "mon eau" sounds like "mon neau" and "deux images" sounds like "deux zimages". "ma eau" sounds really wrong compared to it probably because no liaison can be made. In fact, in old french people would have written "m'eau".
Which brings me to the other aspect of this which is the apostrophe; you don't say "la eau" but "l'eau", and the same goes with all (most) words starting with a vowel (or a silent H followed by a vowel : "l'hydrogène", "l'hopital"). I just found a very good article in french about this and will try to translate it in another answer.
I find Syem's insights really helpful; adding depth to grammatical points I have just covered in Duolingo.
Well, that's just unnecessarily confusing. My sympathies for all the poor saps trying to learn English and remember these nonsensical rules (of which there are many).
I agree because some people are getting confused with the possessives and which one is which. This is a good rule to think of when it comes up.
If letters, languages and attitudes to them had not changed globally, we would all be writing "finfulnefs" for sinfulness. We can be grateful that catholic and Protestant kings wanted everyone singing off the same page that there is even a standard base somewhere in the English language. We can be grateful that the American government passed a law in the 1800s to standardise the alphabet. Language is not set in stone in any country or culture. Nor is its usage, meanings or connotations. Language is alive and constantly changing. In the future, language will be reduced to text vocabularies in phones and iPads. If everyone thinks that the coming generations are going to bother with the finer points of any language, they are as outdated as the long s. Those who use language to post personal insults simply reveal their true character. To judge and insult someone without knowing them is quite rude. All language evolves whether you like the fact or not. Whether this evolution is deterioration or not is judged by the preceding generation. The verdict is generally that it is.
You're mixing up written language and spoken language... No, language won't be reduced to text vocabularies in electronic devices or books because as you said it yourself, it's alive. Be that as it may, it still stands on its heritage which cannot just be dismissed by an insulting "it's about time they let go of that", as if the people in charge of making decisions regarding language were grumpy old farts holding on to their rules just for the sake of holding on to their rules.
Without its heritage, the language is nothing as it rests on no grounds that people can rely on to understand what a word means... Evolution is a slow process and no one would ever get rid of gendered nouns just for the sake of making the language easier to learn. The circumflex accent is generally used to signify the removal of an S or a double vowel; what do you think we'd use to signify the removal of genders? Would that make things easier or just as complicated and nonsensical as you believe it is now?