What is a French article? Articles are important elements of French grammar, enabling us to indicate some level of specifics to nouns. In this post we’ll examine the three different types of French articles, and go over how to use all of them!
French Articles: The Basics
There are three types of French articles: definite articles, indefinite articles, and partitive articles. Each type has a different meaning, but they all follow a set of standard rules:
1. An article comes before a noun. A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.
2. As nouns have gender in French, the article must match the gender of the noun (masculine or feminine).
3. Each noun’s article must also match its number (singular or plural).
4. While articles can often be omitted in English, they cannot be omitted in French. In English, for example, we can say “I like bread,” whereas in French we would have to say “J’aime le pain,” which literally translates to “I like the bread.”
Definite Articles: “The” in French
Definite articles refer to known or specific nouns. All of the French definite articles translate to English as the. They must match the gender and number of the noun they precede. The definite articles in French are:
|Definite articles: French||Masculine||Feminine|
|Singular, before a vowel sound||l’||l’|
Both le and la will form contractions with nouns that begin with a vowel or vowel sound (like a silent “h”) in French. To make these contractions, we simply drop the last letter from the article and add an apostrophe. Both le and la will become l’ before a noun that begins with a vowel, regardless of whether that noun is masculine or feminine. This is the closest comparison we have to your English article an, which is also placed before vowel sounds.
Les is used before both masculine plural nouns and feminine plural nouns.
Let’s see the French definite articles with some examples:
- Le cahier – The notebook (masculine)
- La recette – The recipe (feminine)
- L’ordinateur – The computer (masculine)
- Les cahiers – The notebooks (masculine, plural)
- Les recettes – The recipes (feminine, plural)
- Les ordinateurs – The computers (masculine, plural)
Masculine vs feminine nouns
Unfortunately, there is not a simple way to tell whether a French noun is masculine or feminine on its own, so you’ll need to memorize each noun’s gender as you learn it. You can do this by memorizing the definite (or indefinite) article that precedes it. If the noun begins with a vowel (preceded by l’) or is plural (preceded by les), however, the definite article will not indicate the noun’s gender, so you’ll need to identify the noun’s gender in another way. Most language resources indicate a noun’s gender with an abbreviation, usually “m.” for masculine and “f.” for feminine.
Contractions with “à” and “de”
When used with the prepositions à (indicating to, at, or in) and de (indicating from, of, or about), the masculine and plural definite articles le and les become contractions. We’ll look at these specifics in the following tables, along with examples demonstrating each one. Note that with the feminine definite article la, as well as with the definite article preceding a vowel l’, there is no change.
À is a preposition that generally translates as to, at, or in, so all four forms shown in this table can translate as to the, at the, or in the.
|à + le||au|
|à + la||à la|
|à + l’||à l’|
|à + les||aux|
- Au parc (m.) – To the park, At the park, In the park
- À la librarie (f.) – To the bookstore, At the bookstore, In the bookstore
- À l’école (f.) – To [the] school, At [the] school
- Aux magasins (m.) – To the stores, At the stores, In the stores
De is a preposition that generally translates as from, of, or about, so all four forms shown in this table can translate as from the, of the, or about the.
|de + le||du|
|de + la||de la|
|de + l’||de l’|
|de + les||des|
- Du parc (m.) – From the park, Of the park, About the park
- De la plage (f.) – From the beach, Of the beach, About the beach
- De l’ambassade (m.) – From the embassy, Of the embassy, About the embassy
- Des amis (m.) – From the friends, Of the friends, About the friends
Indefinite Articles: “A,” “An,” and “Some” in French
Indefinite articles refer to unknown or general nouns. The French indefinite articles un and une are for singular nouns, which in English can be either a or an, while the indefinite article des for plural nouns generally translates as some. The indefinite articles in French must match the gender and number of the nouns they precede. The indefinite articles in French are:
|Indefinite articles: French||Masculine||Feminine|
The indefinite articles un and une can also mean one, and will still agree with the noun’s gender.
Des is used for both masculine plural nouns and feminine plural nouns.
Now let’s see the French indefinite articles with the same nouns we saw when introducing the French definite articles:
- Un cahier – A notebook, One notebook
- Une recette – A recipe, One recipe
- Des cahiers – Some notebooks
- Des recettes – Some recipes
Partitive Articles: “Some” or “Any” in French
Partitive articles in French refer to “part of” or “some of” a whole object, or to several objects among many. The partitive articles du, de la, de l’, and des generally translate as some in French, while they can also take other translations depending on the context, namely any.
When the noun is singular, the partitive article indicates “part of” or “some of” a whole object, or “some” of a noncount noun. A noncount noun is a noun that cannot be counted and only exists in abstract quantities (such as “butter” or “water”). When the noun is plural, the partitive article indicates several objects. The partitive articles in French are:
|Partitive articles: French||Masculine||Feminine|
|Singular, before a vowel sound||de l’||de l’|
- Veux-tu du gâteau. – Do you want some cake? – Do you want any cake?
- Je mets toujours de la moutarde dans mes sandwichs. – I always put [some] mustard in my sandwiches.
- Le chanteur utilise toujours de l’argot dans ses textes. – The singer always uses some slang in his lyrics.
- Il nous faut des pièces de monnaie pour les parcomètres – We need some change for the parking meters.
“Du,” “De la,” “De l’,” “Des”: Contraction or partitive article?
You may have noticed that the definite article contractions with de and the partitive articles in French are the same words. You can tell the difference from the context of the phrase or sentence.
Examples of contractions:
- C’est le bureau du professeur. – That’s the desk of the teacher. (Here, the contraction du means of the and indicates possession.)
- Je viens de la bibliothèque. – I am coming from the library. (Here, de la means from the and indicates direction.)
- Tu parles des trains ? – Are you talking about the trains? (Here, the contraction des means about the and indicates subject matter.)
Examples of partitive articles:
- Je voudrais du bacon, s’il vous plaît. – I would like some bacon, please. (Here, the partitive article du means some of a noncount noun: bacon.)
- Tu veux de la baguette ? – Would you like some bread? (Here, the partitive article de la means some of a whole object: a long, thin loaf of French bread.)
- Reste-t-il de l’avocat ? – Is there any avocado left? (Here, the partitive article de l’ means any of an object: avocado.)
- Elle mange des raisins. – She is eating some grapes. (Here, the partitive article des means some grapes. We could also simply consider this to be an indefinite article on its own.)
Conclusion: Articles in French
We’ve written a lot here to give a full explanation on all the ways to say the and a in French. Known respectively as the definite articles and indefinite articles, the main difference with their English counterparts is that French has different forms of each one to match the gender and number of the nouns they precede. In plural, the indefinite article generally translates as some.
In addition to getting to know the basic list of French articles, we saw some specific contractions where the masculine and plural forms of the articles combine with the prepositions à and de. Finally, we looked at the partitive articles in French, which enable us to talk about imprecise portions of whatever noun we’re describing.
We hope this post has helped you clear up all the differences between the various articles in French, while also helping to understand their parallels with the English articles you’re already familiar with. As one of the fundamental building blocks of basic grammar, mastering the French articles will come quickly enough as you imrove your skills in the language!