In French, like in many languages, a small word can make a big difference, even when this word is just a single letter like à. À is a French preposition that can be tricky to use correctly, as it carries plenty of usages and meanings. À also has 4 other declinations based on the gender, the number, and the first letter of the noun it precedes: à la, à l’, au, and aux in French.
One of the simplest ways to explain this proposition is that à (and à la, à l’, and au) means to, at, or in; the same goes for aux, which is used before plural nouns. Yet, it wouldn’t be French if it were that simple: the English translations of à, à la, à l’, au, and aux in French are not always consistent.
But don’t worry, in this post we clarify for you the various meanings and usages of à, à la, à l’, au, and aux in French.
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À: An essential French preposition of place
First, let’s review some basics. Prepositions in French are small invariable words that are used before nouns and pronouns and between the rest of the sentence. The most commonly used prepositions in French are à and de.
For instance, in the sentence “Je vais à la maison pour déjeuner” (I go [to] home to have lunch) the proposition à is used after the conjugated verb “aller” and before the noun “maison” and the rest of the sentence. Note that in English, the translation of to is often simply implied.
In French, à is crucial to understand the movement to a location. Yet the role of this preposition and its contractions is not limited to movement or a location, and can have other usages we’ll explain later in this post. In the meantime, you can also check our general introduction to French prepositions.
Finally, keep in mind that the preposition à should not be mistaken with the unaccented “a,” which is a conjugated form of the verb “avoir” (to have).
What are French contractions?
As we’ve seen, a French preposition precedes a noun, and thus a definite article: le, la, l’, or les. For pronunciation reasons, à forms contractions depending on the article and the first letter of the noun.
Since the definite articles le and la are contracted to l’ before a noun starting with a vowel, when à is followed by a such a word it becomes à l’ in French. This is the case whether the noun is masculine or feminine.
- They leave for school. – Ils partent à l’école.
When the proposition refers to a singular masculine noun preceded by the article le, it contracts to au in French. (We never say “à le” in French.)
- They live at 15 Grandjean street. – Ils habitent au 15 rue Grandjean.
If the noun is plural, thus preceded by the article les, the contraction becomes aux. This is the case whether the plural noun is masculine or feminine. (We never say “à les” in French.)
- They travel to the Netherlands. – Ils voyagent aux Pays-Bas.
When to use À, À la, À l’, Au, and Aux in French
As mentioned above, à, à la, à l’, au, and aux in French can usually be translated to to, at, and in, as it often refers to a location. But à and its other declinations also have other meanings. Let’s go over the most common instances when we use à, à la, à l’, au, and aux in French.
To indicate a place
One of the primary usages of à in French is to indicate a location, a place, or a destination, as seen in the first examples.
- I’m at the beach. – Je suis à la plage.
- I spend the summer in Paris. – Je passe l’été à Paris.
Similarly, it is used before the name of a country, based on the gender and number of the country’s name. Thus, for masculine country names starting with a consonant, we use the proposition au:
- I live in Sri Lanka. – Je vis au Sri Lanka.
- I travel to Senegal. – Je voyage au Sénégal.
If the country name is plural, it’s the preposition aux that is used in French:
- He is in the United States. – Il est aux Etats-Unis.
- She studies in the Netherlands. – Elle étudie aux Pays-Bas.
However, for country names that are feminine or that start with vowels, and for continents, French uses another preposition: en.
For time and space
À, à la, à l’, au, and aux are also used to indicate where something is located in time or space.
- The metro is 50 meters away from her apartment. – Le métro se situe à 50 mètres de son appartement.
- She lives down the street. – Elle habite au bas de la rue.
- The meeting is at 2pm. – La réunion est à 14 heures.
À is also used in expressions referring to a point later in time.
- See you tomorrow – À demain
- See you next time – À la prochaine
- See you later – À plus tard
(For other expressions for parting ways, here’s a good post of ways to say goodbye in French.)
To mark possession
Another classic usage of à in French and its declinations is to mark possession.
- This ring belongs to Leila. – Cette bague appartient à Leila.
- It’s a friend of mine. – C’est un ami à moi.
To indicate a means of transportation
The preposition à is also used when we describe our means of transportation, though only for ones that we don’t enter into.
- I go by bike. – Je vais à vélo.
- He made the trip on foot. – Il a fait le chemin à pied.
To define the purpose or express characteristics
À, à la, à l’, au, and aux also have the ability to indicate an object’s characteristics or purpose.
- An ironing board – Une table à repasser
- A fruit tart – Une tarte aux fruits
- An English garden – Un jardin à l’anglaise
- A handmade jewelry – Un bijou fait à la main
To be honest, as is often the case in the language, there is no fixed rule when it comes to understanding the meaning and correct usage of the preposition à and its other forms à la, à l’, au, and aux in French.
The list we’ve provided here is a good start, that à and its variations are generally used to indicate a place, a time, and possession. Nonetheless, keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive, and it’s really through practice that you’ll understand the right usages.
Bon courage, et à la prochaine!