“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
Vincent Van Gogh said this, and we know it to be true.
Whether it’s language learning or painting a masterpiece, the small things matter.
Understanding French articles matters.
Before you get to l’imparfait (the imperfect past), le plus-que-parfait (the past perfect) or la concordance des temps (the sequence of tenses) you should take the time to learn French articles.
Knowing and using French articles is an important step on your way to French fluency. (A great thing indeed!)
If you’ve been a bit wary of French grammar in the past, let me be the first to say that it’s nothing to be scared of.
But today we’re going to master one of the French grammar basics because we have to start somewhere, right?
What Are French Articles?
Articles are one of the most basic building blocks of learning the French language.
Without them, communication in French falls apart.
As such, French articles should be perfected as close to the beginning of your French journey as possible. They’re essential to creating basic French sentences.
So, what are articles, exactly?
In linguistic terms, articles are words that specify the noun. In everyday terms, an article is a little word that often comes before a noun in English and French, and they allow us to determine whether or not we’re talking about a particular noun.
As you probably already know, English has two types of articles. The first is called the indefinite article, which refers to an unspecified noun. For example, in the phrase, a book, the word a is an indefinite article because it refers to noun book in particular. It’s unspecified. A also becomes an before vowels (e.g. an apple).
A definite article, however, does specify a noun. We can say the book or the apple, and the word the is the only definite articles in English.
As you probably guessed, in French, there are both definite and indefinite articles. There are just a few more of them than in English, and they have slightly different rules. For example, in French definite articles are also combined with prepositions to created contractions, of sorts.
But more on that later!
Where to Practice French Articles
The following resources will help you perfect and practice your French articles.
Give the rest of the post a detailed read, and when you’re done, test yourself and make sure you’ve mastered this important part of French grammar.
- For starters, check out Lawless French for detailed and individualized tests on all three types of articles: indefinite, definite and combinations with the preposition de.
- ToLearnFrench.com has a quiz that tests you on both indefinite and definite articles.
- Lastly, you can use Lingolia to test you on all aspects of articles wrapped into a single quiz.
The Definitive Guide to French Articles
The Basics of French Indefinite Articles
First things first. Let’s look at the indefinite article.
In French, the indefinite article corresponds to “a” or “an” in English, and as previously stated, the indefinite articles refer to an unspecified noun.
In simplest terms, the indefinite article un is used for masculine nouns, and une is used for feminine nouns. Let’s check these out in action:
J’ai mangé une pomme hier. (I ate an apple yesterday.)
Est-ce tu as un livre pour moi? (Do you have a book for me?)
In the above examples, the word une is used with pomme (apple) because pomme is a feminine word. Further, the word un is used with the word livre (book) because livre is masculine.
For plural nouns, the partitive word des (some) is used.
J’ai mangé des pommes hier. (I ate some apples yesterday.)
Est-ce tu as des livres pour moi ? (Do you have some books for me?)
Contrary to English, there are certain cases in French where the indefinite article is omitted. For example, don’t use the indefinite when talking about one’s job.
Je suis professeur. (I am a teacher.)
The Basics of French Definite Articles
Definite articles correspond to “the” in English, and they denote a specific noun that one is speaking about. Like the indefinite articles, these articles are differentiated based on the following noun’s grammatical gender and whether or not the noun is plural.
The rule is actually pretty simple: the article le is the definite article for masculine words, the article la is the definite article for feminine words, and the article les is the definite article for plural words.
Elle a trouvé le sac à dos sur la chaise. (She found the backpack on the chair.)
Où sont les oignons pour la salade ? (Where are the onions for the salad?)
Not so fast: l’ is used for words starting with a vowel or a silent H (H muet). This is actually just the definite article le or la shortened to l’.
Keep in mind, les doesn’t get shortened at all. In the case of aspirated H (H aspiré), the regular definite articles are used.
L’abeille vole à coté de la fenêtre. (The bee flies beside the window.)
Nous avons vu l’homme avec la parapluie. (We saw the man with the umbrella.)
Unlike English, definite articles are also used when nouns are being used in a general sense. This is something that doesn’t happen in English.
J’aime les films et les livres. (I like movies and books.)
Lastly, definite articles are also combined with the prepositions à and de!
French Definite Articles with the Preposition à (to)
As previously stated, the definite articles can be combined with certain prepositions to create what we would call contractions in English. For example, when the preposition à (to) is followed by certain definite articles, the two words must combine.
This isn’t optional, however, like English contractions—this is obligatory.
The rules are simple: When à (at) and le (the) are beside each other, they become au (to the).
When à (at) and les (the) are beside each other, they become aux (to the).
Je vais au cinéma tous les jeudis. (I go to the movies every Thursday.)
Elle a donné le cahier aux parents. (She gave the book to the parents.)
À la/à l’
However, those are the only two instances. When à (at) is beside la or l’, there’s no combination.
Il est allé à la bibliothèque après l’école. (He went to the library after school.)
Les enfants ont désobéi à l’homme. (The children disobeyed the man.)
French Definite Articles with the Preposition de (of/from)
Like the definite articles and à (to), the definite articles and de combine as well, but they have slightly varied meanings. Primarily, when the definite articles combine with de, they can have two meanings:
- The first is the simple meaning of “of the” or “from the.” For example, you may use a combined definite article and de to say “I bought the book from the store” (see below).
- The second meaning is called the “partitive” or the meaning of “some” in English. The partitive talks about an unspecified quantity of something, and often this quantity has to do with food or drink. While these forms look the same, be aware that these meanings are distinct in French. While we won’t get into that in this article, let’s look at formation!
Du/des/de la/de l’
When le combines with de, it becomes du.
When les combines with de, it becomes des.
Like with à (to), la and l’ do not combine with de. They remain de la and de l’.
Also like with à, these combinations aren’t optional. They’re obligatory.
J’ai acheté le livre du magasin. (I bought the book from the store).
Les enfants ont pris le gateau des parents. (The children took the cake from the parents.)
Il a vu la femme de la maison. (He saw the woman of the house.)
Nous avons regardé l’emission de l’homme. (We watched the show from the man.)
Crash course complete!
Now that you’ve mastered the most basic piece of French sentence structure, you’re ready to tackle all the parts of French grammar.
Put those little articles to work!
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