French prepositions are a fundamental yet confusing aspect of French grammar. In this post we’ll introduce the most common prepositions in French, explaining how they’re used and how they can be interpreted in English.
We’ll start this post off by introducing the most common French prepositions and how they’re used. Moving on, we’ll introduce several categories of French prepositions, including prepositions of place, prepositions of time, and prepositional phrases. For quick reference, we provide a list of French prepositions for each category.
So what is a preposition exactly?
Prepositions are words that are usually used to describe details such as movement, location, or time in relation to objects or subjects in a sentence. To give you some examples, some of the most common prepositions in English are in, at, to, from, on, behind, under, and over.
In some cases we use prepositions to link two parts of a phrase, though for a better introduction to French linking words we recommend our post on French conjunctions.
Is it easy to learn French prepositions?
The main difficulty with learning prepositions in French is that their English translations are not always consistent. Part of learning a language is understanding which prepositions to use in which contexts. In many cases, the choice of prepositions in French and in English is comparable, while often it’s different. French speakers face the same challenge when learning English prepositions!
You’ll see what we mean as we explain the various French prepositions in the following sections. The main thing to keep in mind is simply the role that each preposition plays in a sentence, rather than trying to translate it directly.
What are the most common French prepositions?
À and de are the French prepositions used most frequently, so we’ll start off with them. They’re also among those which best demonstrate the challenges of translating directly that we mentioned above.
In, At, To
À is pretty ubiquitous in French, and denotes a location. It can be used to indicate movement to a location, or a stationary presence at or in a location. We therefore provide in, at, and to as common translations, but keep in mind that in some contexts yet another English option could be the better translation.
- Nous allons à la plage. – We are going to the beach.
- Nous nous sommes rencontrés à l’école lundi matin. – We met at school on Monday morning.
- Ma meilleure amie est à Paris cette semaine. – My best friend is in Paris this week.
As was the case with our previous French preposition, de also has a couple of possible English translations. The important point is that de indicates a provenance, so of and from are the usual translations. Where de is best translated with of, this often indicates possession.
- Mon père vient de Martinique. – My father comes from Martinique.
- Les œuvres de Monet sont mes préférées. – The works of Monet are my favorites. – Monet’s works are my favorites.
- Le livre de Paul est sur la table. – Paul’s book is on the table. – [The book of Paul is on the table.]
What are prepositional contractions?
We introduced à and de in the last section, but there’s a peculiarity with each of these French propositions that needs additional attention: they form contractions when combined with the definite articles le or les. Let’s take a look at each of these French prepositional contractions.
À + le = au, À + les = aux
These two prepositional contractions are created so the words flow better when they’re pronounced: à + le = au and à + les = aux. For feminine words we still say à la, and with words that begin with a vowel we still use à l’.
- Aimeriez-vous manger au restaurant avec nous? – Would you like to eat at the restaurant with us?
- Ma sœur va étudier aux États-Unis. – My sister will study in the United States.
- Je ne peux pas aller à la réunion demain. – I can’t go to the meeting tomorrow.
- Mes tantes vont à l’église pour la messe de Noël. – My aunts go to the church for Christmas mass.
De + le = du, De + les = des
These prepositional contractions follow the same rules to the ones we just saw with à. They’re necessary for masculine and plural: de + le = du and de + les = des. We keep de la with feminine, and de l’ before nouns starting with a vowel.
- J’ai reçu un cadeau du directeur. – I received a gift from the director.
- Ils partent des États-Unis samedi prochain. – They are departing from the United States next Saturday.
- Je reviens de la gare dans cinq minutes. – I’m coming back from the train station in five minutes.
- La culture de l’Amérique latine est tellement intéressante. – The culture of [the] Latin America is so interesting.
What are the most common French prepositions of place?
When we think about prepositions, this category comes to mind first. Prepositions of place help us to describe where something is located. In English, examples include on, under, behind, by, or around. Let’s see the the most common ones in this list of French prepositions of place:
|French Prepositions of Place||English Prepositions of Place|
|dans||in, within, inside|
|en||in, by, within|
|devant||in front of|
|sur||on, on top of|
|chez||at [someone’s place]|
Most of these French prepositions of place are used in a similar way to their English counterparts.
- J’ai garé ma voiture derrière la pharmacie. – I parked my car behind the pharmacy.
- Tes gants sont sous le canapé. – Your gloves are under the sofa.
- Le guichet automatique est entre la boulangerie et le café. – The ATM is between the bakery and the café.
- Parmi les restos chics sur la place centrale, il y a un McDo. – Among the fancy restaurants on the central square, there’s a McDonald’s.
A few of these French prepositions of place need a little extra explanation.
in, within, inside
Of the French prepositions that can translate to in in English, dans is the best one for really talking about a physical location of being in, within, or inside.
- Les légumes sont dans le frigo. – The vegetables are in the fridge.
- J’habite dans la Vieille Ville à Québec. – I live within the Old City in Québec City.
Do you see the difference in this last example between dans and à, which both translate to in in English? Dans is really referring to the location in the interior of a defined boundary of the Old City, whereas à is just generally referring to living in or even at a certain city.
Another important use of dans is when we talk about transport. Whereas in English you say you’re on a train or a bus, in French to use the preposition sur would imply that you’re literally sitting on top of them rather than inside!
- J’étais dans le train quand tu m’appellé. – I was on the train when you called me.
- Je ne réussis jamais à m’endormir dans l’avion – I never succeed in falling asleep on the plane.
in, by, within
The French preposition en is also sometimes translated as in, though it’s used in more specific ways that we’ll introduce here. The French preposition en can often be thought of to translate as in the, though in English you don’t always include the article the.
En for feminine countries: Whereas in English you use in for all the countries, in French we use en or au depending on the gender of the country, and even aux for plural countries. Let’s see a few examples:
- J’habite en France, j’ai grandi aux États-Unis, et je suis né au Canada. – I live in France, I grew up in the United States, and I was born in Canada.
- Notre voyage a commencé en Belgique, nous avons passé quelques jours au Luxembourg, et nous avons repris l’avion aux Pays-Bas. – Our trip started in Belgium, we spent a few days in Luxembourg, and we took the plane again in the Netherlands.
En for months, and for the three feminine seasons of summer, fall, and winter: For the masculine season of spring we use the prepositional contraction au that we learned above. Check out our dedicated post for a full introduction on the months and seasons in French.
- En hiver je fais du ski, au printemps je fais du vélo, en été je fais du surf, et en automne je fais de la randonnée. – In the winter I ski, in the spring I bike, in the summer I surf, and in the fall I hike.
- Notre fille est née en novembre, et mes beaux-parents sont venus en décembre. – Our daughter was born in November, and my in-laws came in December.
En for feminine locations: This use of en in French is for when we talk about a location in general, rather than specifically speaking about being literally in the location. This usage is honestly pretty tricky to get right, and even native speakers sometimes use dans or à in these cases. We’ll nonetheless give a few examples here so you’re familiar with it.
- Nos professeurs nous vouvoient toujours en classe. – Our professors always address us with the formal “vous” in class.
- Je crois que j’ai passé la moitié de ma jeunesse en boîte de nuit. – I think I spent half of my youth in night clubs.
En when traveling by a certain mode of transportation: This use of en is actually a preposition of movement, to describe what means of transport someone is traveling by.
- Tous les dirigeants sont arrivés à la cérémonie en bus. – All the leaders arrived at the ceremony by bus.
- Je déteste passer la sécurité quand je voyage en avion. La prochaine fois, je viens en train. – I hate going through security when I travel by plane. Next time, I’m coming by train.
at someone’s home or place
Chez is a really unique French preposition because there really is no equivalent to it in English. It is used with people’s names to express their home or place.
- Mes cousins et moi mangeons souvent chez ma grand-mère. – My cousins and I eat at my grandmother’s place often.
- Elles aiment jouer aux cartes chez Rita. – They like to play cards at Rita’s.
Chez is also frequently used with direct object pronouns like moi, toi, or eux.
- Tu viens chez moi après le concert? – Are you coming to my place after the concert?
- Mes grand-parents nous invitent chez eux chaque été. – My grandparents invite us to their place every summer.
We go into a lot more detail, including some of this unique preposition’s other uses, in our dedicated post on chez in French.
What is a French prepositional phrase?
Many French prepositions are actually phrases. This just means instead of coming as one word alone, there are two or three words that come as a package. They do the same job and are used in the same way as the French prepositions we’ve already discussed. Furthermore, many of them start with à or end with de. Check out the most common ones in this list of French prepositional phrases of place:
|French Prepositional Phrases||English Prepositional Phrases|
|à côté de||next to|
|en face de||across from|
|près de||near to, nearby to|
|loin de||far from|
|au coin de||in the corner of|
|à gauche de||left of|
|à droite de||to the right of|
When using these phrases don’t forget you may need to use a prepositional contraction with de.
- Ma maison est à gauche du pont et en face de la banque. – My house is to the left of the bridge and across from the bank.
- Ma sœur habite à côté de nos parents mais loin de son travail. – My sister lives next to our parents, but far from her workplace.
What are the most common French prepositions of time?
Some prepositions help us situate points in time. Evidently, these are known as prepositions of time. We introduce many of these and more in our detailed article on telling time in French. For the basics, here’s a quick list of French prepositions of time:
|French prepositions of time||English prepositions of time|
- J’ai un rendez-vous ce soir à 19:00. – I have a meeting tonight at 7pm.
- Avant le match, allons au café. – Before the game, let’s go to the cafe.
- Je t’appelle après ma leçon de français. – I’ll call you after my French lesson.
- J’arrive dans cinq minutes! – I’ll be there in five minutes!
Depuis vs Pendant vs Pour
These three French prepositions of time can be confusing to English speakers, since they can all sometimes be translated as for. But when do we use each one?
Depuis and pendant are best thought of as since and during, emphasizing the lapse of time they describe. With depuis, the action is still ongoing when you’d use for in English.
Check out these examples where you see that the concept could be said as since or during, even where the best English equivalent might be for.
- Depuis quand as-tu étudié le français? – Since when have you studied French?
- Depuis combien de temps as-tu étudié le français? – For how long have you studied French?
- J’étudie le français depuis six mois. – I’ve been studying French for six months. – [I study French since six months.]
- J’ai attendu pendant deux heures avant de recevoir le vaccin. – I waited for two hours before receiving my vaccination.
- Ma mère vient me rendre visite pendant une semaine. – My mom is coming to visit me for a week.
- J’ai étudié fortement pendant les vacances. – I studied hard during the holidays.
In contrast, pour in French refers to a time in the future. Pour and pendant can frequently be used interchangeably in these cases, so when in doubt you’re best off just choosing pendant.
- Le berger part avec ses moutons vers les hauteurs pour l’été. – The shepherd is leaving with his sheep to the highlands for the summer.
- Nous serions en Angleterre pour deux ans. – Nous serions en Angleterre pendant deux ans. – We will be in England for two years.
Learning how to use all the French prepositions properly is a long-term process when learning the language, but you can get to an intermediate level soon enough by using the most common ones we introduced in this post.
À and de are the most important prepositions in French, so we took some time describing their various uses and how they form the prepositional contractions au, aux, du, and des. We then covered the most common French prepositions of place, including many prepositional phrases. We put an emphasis on explaining dans and en for expressing in in English, as well as the unique French preposition chez for when you want to say at someone’s place. Finally, we covered the most common French prepositions of time.
You’re off to a great start simply by knowing what a preposition is and how to recognize them in French. You’re well on your way to being able to describe things in space and time with the most common French prepositions you’ve learned here. Keep up the good work!