There are multiple words that we can use to express possession in French. We already covered some of them in our other posts, including French possessive adjectives, French possessive pronouns, and the verb avoir (to have).
In this post, we will look at the use of the French prepositions de and à when referring to possession, which are often translated by adding ’s in English or by using possessive pronouns.
We will give you an overview of how to use these two basic prepositions by exploring examples in both English and French so they will no longer hold any secrets for you!
What are French prepositions?
As a reminder, prepositions are invariable words that indicate the relationship between nouns, pronouns, and other parts of sentences, expressing many different things such as place, time, direction, and possession. They are essential in understanding how to structure a proper sentence in French.
Common French prepositions include à (to/at), de (of/from), dans (inside), par (by), pour (for), en (in/by), vers (towards), avec (with), sous (under), entre (between), devant (in front of), etc. (Note that depending on the context, some of these basic translations can often change!)
For more depth on this topic in general, you can read our dedicated article about French prepositions. For now, we’ll focus on the prepositions à and de for expressing possession in French.
Using De to express possession in French
To express possession using the French preposition de, we’re linking a possessed noun with its owner. All we need to do is follow this structure: article + possessed noun + de + owner. English speakers use the same structure when using the preposition of:
- Les murs de la maison – The walls of the house – The house’s walls
The possessive ’s is more commonly used than of in English. However, keep in mind that the order of the words in a sentence using de in French is the opposite of one using ’s. In French, the possessed noun comes before the possessor. Moreover, the possessed noun must be preceded by an article because a noun can’t stand alone in French:
- C’est le sac de Marion. – This is Marion’s bag.
- Tu as vu le portable de Julie? – Have you seen Julie’s cellphone?
- Le chat des voisins est enfin de retour. – The neighbors’ cat is back at last.
- Les meubles du salon ont besoin d’être changés. – The living room’s furniture needs to be changed. – The furniture of the living room needs to be changed.
Contraction of De with the articles Le and Les
You have surely noticed by reading the example sentences above that sometimes de is replaced by du or des. This is because some French articles contract when they are followed by certain prepositions. De + le become du, and de + les contract to become des:
- J’ai perdu les clés du garage. – I lost the garage[’s] keys. – I lost the keys to the garage.
- Les professeurs des étudiants sont très stricts ici. – The students’ teachers are very strict here.
In order to facilitate pronunciation, French speakers also replace de with d’ when de is followed by a word starting with a vowel:
- Le frère d’Antoine est architecte. – Antoine’s brother is an architect.
Mistakes to avoid when using De for possession
You can use de to express ownership only when the owner is a name or a noun. This means you can’t talk about your own possession by using a stressed pronoun like “moi” (me) or “toi” (you). For example, it’s not possible to say “la maison de moi” (the house of me) in French, even if it’s ok to say “la maison de mes parents” (the house of my parents) since the owner is a noun.
Furthermore, remember that de in French has many uses other than expressing possession, like indicating the origin, the content of something, what an item is made of, etc. It’s important not to confuse them:
- Je viens de Bordeaux. – I come from Bordeaux.
- Une tasse de thé, s’il vous plait. – A cup of tea, please.
- Ce mur de pierres date du 15ème siècle. – This stone wall dates back to the 15th century.
Using Être + À to express possession in French
Another way of expressing possession in French is to use the preposition à with the verb être (to be). Whereas using de as we saw above is quite neutral, à is often used to emphasize who is the owner. Several constructions are possible here:
- Article + possessed object + être conjugated + à + owner
- C’est + article + possessed object + à + owner
- C’est + à + owner
In each of these constructions, the owner can be someone’s name, a noun, or a stressed pronoun.
English speakers often translate être + à using the possessive ’s or possessive pronouns like mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs. Let’s put those constructions into context to see how à functions in a sentence and how it can be translated:
- Ces jouets sont à Marie. – Those toys are Marie’s.
- Elles sont au père de Daniel. – They belong to Daniel’s father.
- C’est une idée à moi. – It’s an idea of mine.
- Je crois que c’est un ami à elle. – I think he is a friend of hers.
- C’est à toi? / Oui, c’est à moi. – Is it yours? / Yes, it’s mine.
- C’est à lui, pas à Martine. – It’s his, not Martine’s.
Contraction of À with the articles Le and Les
We saw earlier that de becomes du or des when followed by le or les. In the same way, à also contracts with le to become au, and with les to become aux:
- Les outils là-bas sont au jardinier. – The tools over there belong to the gardener. – The tools over there are the gardener’s.
- Celui-ci est à moi, et celui-là est aux Dupont. – This one is mine, and that one is the Dupont’s.
For a full lesson on à + le = au and à + les = aux, check out our post on à, à la, à l’, au, aux in French.
Stressed pronouns to be used with À
Stressed pronouns in French are typically used to emphasize a particular person. When used alone, they usually translate to me, you, him, her, us, and them.
- This present is just for you. – Ce cadeau est juste pour toi.
As we already explained, stressed pronouns when preceded by à express ownership, changing their English translation to mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs. For example, mine in French can be translated to à moi.
- Ces livres sont à nous, pas à eux. – Those books are ours, not theirs.
We made a summary table of all the French stressed pronouns with their equivalents in English for you to refer to:
|French subject pronouns||English stressed pronouns||French stressed pronouns|
|il, elle, on||him, her||lui, elle|
|ils, elles||them||eux, elles|
Although this être + à construction remains a common way to express possession, French also has an equivalent to the English verb to belong to which also takes the preposition à: appartenir à. The verb is conjugated to match the possessed object, while the owner comes after the à:
- Ce manteau appartient à Jacques. – This coat belongs to Jacques.
- Ces chaussures appartiennent à mon fils. – Those shoes belong to my son.
Appartenir can usually only be used with à to designate an owner that’s a noun or a name. Where the owner is a pronoun, we generally use the normal word order for indirect object pronouns. However, we can still sometimes use à with stressed pronouns when we really want to emphasize the owner:
- Est-ce que ces gants t’appartiennent ? – Do these gloves belong to you?
- Non, ils ne m’appartiennent pas. Ils appartiennent à toi ! – No, they don’t belong to me. They belong to you!
Mistakes to avoid when using À for possession
There is a recurring mistake that even French speakers often make: using à when de is appropriate. For example, “le chapeau à Simon” is incorrect, instead of “le chapeau de Simon” (Simon’s hat). Keep in mind that we always need to use the verb être + à to express possession; without être (or appartenir), the sentence is grammatically incorrect.
Another common mistake is confusing the préposition “à” with the conjugated form of avoir “a.” To avoid this, just remember that à has an accent grave on top of it whereas the verb avoir, meaning “to have” in French, doesn’t.
Finally, à in French can express many other ideas than possession such as indicating a place, a time, or a means of transportation, to name a few. Some sentences can even express two different meanings depending on how we interpret à:
- Les cahiers sont à l’école. – The notebooks are at school. (a place)
- Les cahiers sont à l’école. – The notebooks belong to the school. (possession)
As not to get confused between all those uses, you can check out our other article on the French preposition à to study each one of them in detail.
In this post, we thoroughly covered how to express possession in French using the two prepositions de and à.
We started with our section on using de for possession, which is often translated by adding ’s to nouns or names of the owner in English, and can also roughly translate with “a possession of an owner.”
In the second section we saw that we always use être + à to express possession, with être being conjugated to the possessed object, with a few different options on the sentence structure. This construction often translates as “belongs to,” or by using possessive pronouns like mine, yours, or theirs.
In both sections, we reviewed how we need to form contractions when using these French prepositions with articles: de can become du or des, while à can become au or aux.
We also reviewed the stressed pronouns which are used after être à to emphasize an object’s owner.
We wrapped up each section by going over common mistakes to avoid when using de and à for possession in French.
It might seem like a lot to remember, but understanding how to correctly use these prepositions will come in handy if you want to talk about possession in French. And with the help of this post and a bit of practice, we have no doubt you can achieve this goal anytime. Bon courage!