I'm currently working on an internationalisation project for a large web application - initially we're just implementing French but more languages will follow in time. One of the issues we've come across is how to display adjectives.

Let's take "Active" as an example. When we received translations back from the company we're using, they returned "Actif(ve)", as English "Active" translates to masculine "Actif" or feminine "Active". We're unsure of how to display this, and wondered if there are any well established conventions.

As far as I see it there are three possible scenarios:

  1. We know at development time which noun a given adjective is referring to. In this case we can determine and use the correct gender.
  2. We're referring to a user, either directly ("you") or in the third person. Short of making every user have a gender, I don't see a better approach than displaying both, i.e. "Actif(ve)"
  3. We are displaying the adjective in isolation, not knowing which noun it's referring to. For example in a table of data, some rows might be dealing with a masculine entity, some feminine.

Scenarios 2 and 3 seem to be the toughest ones. Does anyone have any experience handling these issues? Any tips would be appreciated!

Edit to clarify: the core of this question is really just "how to handle adjectives in a situation where we have no choice but to display them in isolation, when the word itself does not have a generic form". So it's not really a particularly software-specific problem

  • Please do not crosspost question across different sites of the SE network. This one seems to be about software internationalization, and it is not clear how it can be answered from the Linguistics point of view (please clarify if so). Nov 22, 2021 at 12:35
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    Also, you never internationalize the software word-by-word like one did in 1990's. If you somehow manage declensions, homonyms, and word agreement, you would bump into measure words and word order, and this would be the dead end for the naive approach. Localize complete sentences instead. Nov 22, 2021 at 12:44
  • This problem applies not only in translation, but also to texts originally composed there are a variety of conventions, none of which is uniformly accepted. This wikipedia page has a summary of relevant questions (I'm linking directly to the French section, but the page is relevant to other languages as well). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Tristan
    Nov 22, 2021 at 13:48
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    In Russian dictionaries often the changeable part of the word is separated with a thin vertical line which can be of a different color than the letters, and the word is followed by the ending(s) which can potentially substitute the part of the word to the right of the vertical line, something like this: acti|f, -ve or acti|f (-ve).
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 22, 2021 at 14:56
  • If you're using genders, use m, f, n. If you're displaying forms, use actif/ve. Color, font, and type style are your friends here; you want distinctions, but not space-filling ones.
    – jlawler
    Nov 22, 2021 at 16:02

1 Answer 1


This is generally not a linguistic issue. The linguistic fact is that in some languages, word forms obligatorily agree in gender or number with some other word in a clause, except that the controlling word might not actually be there. The non-linguistic issue is that there may be social conventions regarding default agreement choices. Some of those social conventions can be very strong, so in many Bantu languages, verbs and adjectives have to agree in noun class, and there are minimally a half-dozen singulars and a half-dozen plurals. Even if you can determine that the referent is non-human, you have to decide which class to use for a generic "it". There is a strong tendency for default marking of non-humans to be in class 7 which contains the word "thing", but this is not grammatically obligatory.

The non-linguistic solution is to determine what is socially acceptable in that society.

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