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French Articles: Little Words That Make a Big Difference

“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.

Learning French articles is a small, but important step of your journey to fluency.

French articles are the basis for defining any type of noun, so you must have a good grasp of them before moving into more complex grammar. 

This guide will give you everything you need to understand what French articles are and how to use them!

Contents

French Indefinite Articles

In French, the indefinite article corresponds to “a” or “an” in English, and as previously stated, it refers to an unspecified noun.

FrenchEnglishExample
une a / an (feminine) J'ai mangé une pomme hier.  
(I ate an apple yesterday.)
un a / an (masculine) Est-ce que tu as un livre pour moi?  
(Do you have a book for me?)
des some J'ai mangé des pommes hier.  
(I ate some apples yesterday.)

Keep in mind that 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.)

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:

FrenchEnglishExample
la the (female, single) La femme est très belle.
(The woman is very beautiful.)
le the (male, single) Le chat s'appelle Hugo.
(The cat is named Hugo.)
l' the (followed by a vowel, single) Ils vont à l'hôpital.
(They're going to the hospital.)
les the (plural) Nous vendons les chaussures.
(We sell [the] shoes.)

Definite Articles with the Preposition à (to)

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.

à + PrepositionCombinationExample Sentence
à (at) + le (the) au (to the) Je vais au cinéma tous les jeudis.  
(I go to the movies every Thursday.)
à (at) + les (the) aux (to the) Elle a donné le cahier aux parents.  
(She gave the book to the parents.)
à (at) + laNo combination Il est allé à la bibliothèque après l'école.  
(He went to the library after school.)
à (at) + l'No combination Les enfants ont désobéi à l'homme.  
(The children disobeyed the man.)

Definite Articles with the Preposition de (of/from)

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, usually food or drink. 

Du/des/de la/de l’

de + Definite ArticleCombinationExample Sentence
de + le du J’ai acheté le livre du magasin.
(I bought the book from the store).
de + les des Les enfants ont pris le gâteau des parents.
(The children took the cake from the parents.)
de + laNo combination Il a vu la femme de la maison.
(He saw the woman of the house.)
de + l'No combination Nous avons regardé l’émission de l’homme.
(We watched the show from the man.)

What Are Partitive Articles?

Partitive articles in French are used to express an indefinite or partial quantity of something.

  • Du is used before masculine singular nouns, e.g. du pain (some bread)
  • De la is used before feminine singular nouns, such as de la confiture (some jam). When a noun starts with a vowel or a silent h, de la changes to de l’, e.g. de l’eau (some water).
  • Des is used before plural nouns, both masculine and feminine e.g. des fruits (some fruits).

In negative sentences, the partitive articles change. Du becomes de, de la becomes de, and des becomes de, e.g. Je ne veux pas de pain (I don’t want any bread).

Where to Practice French Articles

The following resources will help you perfect and practice your French articles.

  • Lawless French has detailed and individualized tests on indefinite and definite articles and combinations with the preposition de.
  • FluentU has a vast video library that will show you definite and indefinite articles in context with authentic video clips that come with interactive subtitles, flashcards and quizzes. You can also access it on mobile (iOS or Android).
  • ToLearnFrench.com has a quiz that tests you on both indefinite and definite articles.

Now that you have a handle on 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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