A Simple Guide to French Determiners

You are determined to learn French.

You know why it is a highly beneficial language to learn.

You have been dazzled by its beautiful words and sounds.

And you realize that there are a lot of things to know in order to communicate precisely in French.

This is where French determiners come in. These seemingly small words are necessary for specific and clear conversations in French.

We will show you exactly what we mean and introduce you to the important kinds, including articles, numbers and certain types of adjectives.


What Are French Determiners, Exactly?

“Determiners” might sound like an intimidating, obscure, overly-technical grammatical term. However, determiners work in a similar way as adjectives, which simply describe a noun.

Like adjectives, French determiners pair up with nouns and must agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. We will show you what this looks like for each type as we go through them.

Keep in mind that determiners are more common in French than they are in English, which is one reason why they are so crucial to know. In fact, determiners are among the most widely used French words.

Listening to real French speech is one of the best ways to un-learn your English tendencies and use determiners the way native speakers do. For example, in this video about a super-affordable café in France, you will hear French speakers naturally using several different determiners that are covered in this article below.

No Naked Nouns! How to Choose the Right French Determiners Every Time

Definitely Necessary: Le, La, Les and L’

What if I told you that you probably already know several French determiners?

Since determiners are so common and necessary, they are usually among the first words French students learn. These include the articles that often accompany nouns. Right now we will look at the French definite articlesle, la, l’ and les. They are all translated as “the” in English.

Le is used with masculine singular nouns: le pain (the bread).

La is used with feminine singular nouns: la tortue (the turtle).

Les is employed with plural nouns regardless of gender: les verres (the glasses).

L’ comes before a noun beginning with a vowel regardless of gender: l‘opéra (the opera).

Due to these gender rules, when you are studying French vocabulary, you should always learn the appropriate article along with the noun itself. This makes memorization of nouns’ genders much easier over the long-term.

Remember how I said that determiners are used more often in French than in English? This is especially true with the definite article.

When speaking in a general sense, French may employ the definite article where English would likely omit it:

L‘homme n’est pas parfait. (Man/mankind is not perfect.)

Furthermore, the definite article is always used with names of seasons and groups of people:

Les français (French people), le printemps (spring)

Indefinitely Needed: Un, Une and Des

You guessed it! Just as definite articles are considered determiners, so too are the indefinite articles, which correspond to the English word “a.”

Une is used with feminine singular nouns: une voiture (a car).

Un accompanies masculine singular nouns: un livre (a book).

You may not have learned des when you were first introduced to indefinite articles, but do not worry. This is simply the plural form and does not change for gender. Depending on context, it may be translated as “some” or even remain untranslated: des lits (beds).

Although determiners in French are often used where they would not be in English, there is a case where English requires “a” or “an,” but French does not. This is with names of professions:

Je suis professeur. (I am a teacher.)

Breaking It into Parts: Du, De La, De L’ and Des

Du, de la, de l’ and des are often called “partitive articles.” They correspond to “of the” in English and, yes, are more common in French than in English.

For instance, the partitive article can communicate an indeterminate amount of something, especially when used with food:

On mange du pain avec la soupe. (We are eating bread with the soup.)

The phrase du pain (literally, of the bread) makes it clear that we are talking about bread generally and not a specific amount.

The partitive articles are all formed by combining de with the appropriate definite article (agreeing with the noun in gender and number):

Du comes from de + ledu lait (some milk). 

De lalucky us, simply comes from de + lade la République (of the Republic).

Des comes from de + les: photos des amis (photos of friends)

De l’ is simply the one that is used before vowels: de l‘amour (of love)

You can practice these different formations and see more examples in this partitive article exercise and this multiple-choice quiz.

Countdown to Fluency: Numbers

Numbers are another type of determiner French learners encounter early on.

The first numbers most of us learn are cardinal numbers. In short, these are counting numbers. (Psst… remember that “cardinal” and “count” both begin with “c.”)

Il a trois filles. (He has three daughters.)

The other type of numbers are the ordinal numbers, which are used when putting things in order.

La seconde guerre mondiale (the Second World War)

Yes, even numbers are considered determiners because of the way they describe a noun. Since they are so crucial to know, this French numbers quiz can help refresh your memory.

From Me to You: Possessive Adjectives

If you like owning things, you will want to know possessive adjectives, another type of French determiner that denotes ownership.

As with other determiners, they must agree with the noun they accompany in gender and number. Here is what that looks like.

There are three possessive adjectives to say “my” in French: mon (masculine singular), ma (feminine singular) and mes (plural).

Mon portable (my cell phone)

Keep in mind that the adjective agrees with the noun, not the owner. So in this example, the speaker (“I”) could be a man or woman. Mon is used simply because un portable is masculine.

Similarly, there are several ways to convey “your.” Let us first look at the informal form, tu. These include: ton (masculine singular), ta (feminine singular) and tes (plural). To convey the formal (vous) form of “your,” there is votre (singular) and vos (plural).

Ton portable (your cell phone)

Ta voiture (your car)

Votre portable (your cell phone)

Votre voiture (your car)

Vos peurs (your fears)

Tes vêtements (your clothes)

The next three possessive adjectives/pronouns may be translated as “his,” “her” or “its” depending on context. Remember, again, that the pronoun’s gender and number agrees with the noun, not the speaker. These three include sa (feminine), son (masculine) and ses (plural).

Ses chaussures (his/her shoes)

For “our,” we have only two forms: notre (singular) and nos (plural)

Notre professeur (our teacher)

Finally, we are left with leur (singular) and leurs (plural), corresponding to “they.”

Leurs billets (their tickets)

It can seem like a lot to remember, but it does become more natural. This possessive adjective quiz might help.

This or That: Demonstrative Adjectives

Demonstrative adjectives help specify exactly which thing you are talking about.

I know it sounds a bit abstract, but these words simply correspond to “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” in English.

In English, “this” communicates that the object you are referring to is nearby, while “that” expresses distance from the object. However, in French, the following words may express nearness or distance depending on context:

Ce is the masculine singular form: ce sac (this/that bag)

Cet is also masculine singular, but is used only if the following word starts with a vowel or muted “h:” cet œuvre d’art (this/that work of art)

Cette is the feminine singular form: cette robe (this/that dress)

Ces is plural, regardless of gender: ces chansons (these/those songs)

Whew! A lot to get used to. As usual, practice is key. You might want to check out this demonstrative adjective quiz.

What a Determiner! Exclamatory or Interrogative Adjectives

Quel(s) and quelle(s) are another form of determiners that serve two purposes. Quel is the masculine form and quelle is the feminine form. “S” is added to either one to make it plural.

The first use is known as the interrogative because it is often used in the context of a question and corresponds to “which” in English.

Quelles chaussures porteras-tu à la fête? (Which shoes will you wear to the party?)

The second use is called the exclamative. In this case, quel is employed for emphasis and is similar to the English expression “what a…”

Quelle surprise! (What a surprise!)

Getting Specific: Lequel, laquelle, lesquels and lesquelles

Lequel, laquelle, lesquels and lesquelles, known as relative adjectives, may seem difficult to understand at first. However, they become easier when you see them in context.

To summarize, these words are similar to the English word “which.” They stand in for an object in a question or statement.

Parmi ces restaurants, lequel préférez-vous? (Among these restaurants, which do you prefer?)

Avec lesquels de vos amis avez-vous dîné? (With which of your friends did you have dinner?)

Remember, one more time, that the determiner must match the object’s gender and number.

Here, lequel is masculine singular, laquelle is feminine singular, lesquels is masculine plural and lesquelles is feminine plural.

These words may also be combined with other words, including de or à to communicate “to which,” “of which,” “from which,” or even “whose.” Yet another example of why literal translation does not always work well.

Le musée près duquel j’ai rencontré des amis (The museum near which I met some friends)

— J’ai téléphoné à ta soeur hier soir. (I called your sister last night.) — À laquelle? ([To] which one?)

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I know it may seem utterly overwhelming. But it is a start.

And yes, it takes time, commitment and practice.

French determiners include such a wide variety of uses, but you will get the hang of it if you are determined to learn French.

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