Would you say you’re on the bus or in it?
That depends on which language you’re speaking.
Prepositions connect words and describe their relationship in space or time (for instance: in, under, during, etc.). Different languages speak about space and time in different ways, which makes French prepositions tough to master.
For instance, take the answer to our example above: In English, you’re on the bus; in French, you’re in it.
It may seem like a small difference but it’s an important one!
With that in mind, let’s explore one type of preposition in French: prepositions of place.
Exercises for Practicing French Prepositions
One of the key ways to make sure you’re getting prepositions right is to just practice. Luckily, there are tons of exercises out there that you can use. Here are just a few of our favorites:
- Tex’s Prepositions with Places: This exercise from Tex’s French Grammar exercise looks at the proper way to use à, en, au and aux. It also includes a visual resource reminding you when to use which preposition.
- Prepositions and Countries: To Learn French has a few excellent exercises for you to really hone your French preposition usage. Like Tex’s page, this exercise also delves into à, en, au and aux, with a multiple choice quiz and a great video resource for clarifying when to use which preposition.
- Practice with Pictures: This very visual exercise focuses on seven prepositions of place and includes a video and an image that show their meaning.
- Even More Practice! This exercise is quite similar to the one above, so if you’re still having trouble: Practice, practice, practice!
- Lingolia’s Fill-in-the-blanks: This exercise is the best one for finishing up. Unlike the other resources, it requires you to type out your answers rather than choose them from a drop-down menu. It makes a great review for everything covered by the previous exercises.
Another fantastic way to really stick those prepositions in your mind is to see them being used in videos on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. As you watch videos in French, be on the lookout for those prepositions. They show up everywhere! Use the interactive subtitles to keep up and check the definition of any preposition (or any word at all) that you’re not sure about. How many of the prepositions listed below can you spot in one video?
The Ultimate Guide to French Prepositions of Place
Sur can best be translated as “on.”
Le chat est sur la chaise. (The cat is on the table.)
J’ai appelé ma mere sur le telephone. (I called my mother on the telephone.)
Good to Know:
Colloquially, sur can also be used to say “in” when referring to certain cities:
Je suis sur Paris. (I’m in Paris.)
Bear in mind that this is technically grammatically incorrect and should only be used when speaking in a familier register; it should not be written or used in standard French.
Sous can best be translated as “under.”
Les taupes habitent sous la terre. (Moles live under the ground.)
Harry Potter habite sous l’escalier. (Harry Potter lives under the stairs.)
Good to Know:
Sous is used in a lot of compound nouns in French, including several words where the English equivalent uses the Latin root “sub.” For example:
- Sous-sol (basement)
- Souscrit (subscript)
- Sous-louer (sublet)
- Soustraire (subtract)
- Sous-comité (subcommittee)
Devant is used to mean “before” or “ahead of.”
Vas-y; passe devant. (Go ahead, go before me.)
“Je suis devant le cinéma. Où es-tu? (I’m in front of the movie theater. Where are you?)
Good to Know:
Bear in mind that devant is not used in reference to time, as the English “before” can be. (In French, the word for that is avant.) Devant is used in the “in front of” sense of “before,” to express physicality rather than time.
Derrière can best be translated as “behind.”
Attention! Je suis juste derrière toi. (Careful! I’m right behind you.)
Si tu cherches le sel, il est derrière le poivre. (If you’re looking for the salt, it’s behind the pepper.)
Good to Know:
Careful how you use it! In noun form, derrière also means “behind” in the anatomical sense of the word.
Avec can best be translated as “with.”
Qu’est-ce que tu veux manger avec tes frites: du ketchup ou de la mayo? (What do you want to eat with your fries: ketchup or mayo?)
Avec qui est-il venu à la soirée, Simon? (Who did Simon come to the party with?)
Dans can best be translated as “in.”
Je bois mon café dans un bol. (I drink my coffee in a bowl.)
Ton pull est dans la machine à laver. (Your sweater is in the washing machine.)
Good to Know:
Dans can also be used as an expression of “in” to refer to time:
On se reverra dans trois semaines! (We’ll see each other again in three weeks!)
It’s used in some places where you would use “on” in English:
Je suis dans l’avion. (I’m on the plane.)
On se retrouve dans le train? (Shall we meet up on the train?)
Je monte dans le bus. (I’m getting on the bus.)
En is used for more abstract senses of “In.”
Je crois en Dieu. (I believe in God.)
J’ai teins ma robe en bleu. (I dyed my dress blue.)
Je vais à Corse en avion. (I’m going to Corsica by plane.)
Good to Know:
En has lots of other specific uses as well, including in reference to certain countries as we’ll see later in this article.
Chez doesn’t have an English translation, but it can best be translated as “at the home of” or “at the place of business of.”
Tu veux venir chez moi après l’école? (Want to come to my house after school?)
J’ai rendez-vous chez le dentiste aujourd’hui. (I’ve got an appointment at the dentist’s today.)
Good to Know
Since chez is a preposition, there’s no need to add another! Many English speakers make the mistake of using à, the French equivalent of “at,” with chez, as in the following (incorrect!) sentence:
*Je vais à chez moi. (I’m going to my home.)
This is unnecessary and, in fact, it makes the sentence incorrect. Instead, speakers should say:
Je vais chez moi. (I’m going home.)
Au Fond De
Au fond de doesn’t have an English translation, but it can best be translated as “at the extremity of.” While this is technically a compound preposition, it can be tough to get a handle on so it’s good to start recognizing it now.
J’ai trouvé un trésor au fond du lac. (I found treasure at the bottom of the lake.)
Les toilettes sont au fond du restaurant. (The bathroom is at the back of the restaurant.)
Je te remercie du fond du coeur. (Thank you from the bottom of my heart.)
Racle le fond du pot de Nutella avant que j’en ouvre un autre. (Scrape out the bottom of the Nutella jar before I open another one.)
Je pense que c’est dans le carton tout au fond du grenier. (I think it’s in the box all the way at the back of the attic.)
Au, A la, A l’, Aux, A, En: Prepositions for Talking About Cities and Countries
We’ll talk about the next little group of prepositions together, as they’re often used in similar situations.
The first four are actually all permutations of the same preposition, à:
- Au is used with singular, masculine nouns (au bureau [to the office]).
- A la is used with singular, feminine nouns (à la boutique [to the shop]).
- A l’ is used with singular nouns (masculine or feminine) that begin with a vowel (à l’université (to university); à l’arrêt de bus [to the bus stop]).
- Aux is used with plural nouns (masculine or feminine) (aux iles [to the islands], aux musées [to the museums]).
The à group can best be translated in English as “at,” “in” or “to,” depending on the circumstances.
Je vais à l’école. (I’m going to school.)
Marie est au parc. (Marie is at the park.)
Je suis au stop – où es-tu? (I’m at the stop sign – where are you?)
Countries and Continents
These prepositions, along with en, are also used to describe your location when referring to a country or continent in two cases: When you’re talking about the act of going to a place and when you’re expressing that you are currently in that place. (When talking about coming from a place, you’ll use the preposition group de—we’ll address that down below).
In this case, en replaces à la as the singular, feminine noun for countries:
- Au is used with singular, masculine countries (au Sénégal, au Portugal).
- En is used with singular, feminine countries and with masculine countries starting with a vowel (en France, en Angola).
- Aux is used with plural countries (masculine or feminine) (aux États-Unis).
Of course, that means you need to know whether a country is masculine or feminine. This is actually fairly easy (for once!): if a country ends in the letter e, it’s feminine:
- En France (In France)
- En Espagne (In Spain)
- En Italie (In Italy)
- En Chine (In China)
If a country does not end in the letter e, it’s masculine:
- Au Canada (In Canada)
- Au Danemark (In Denmark)
- Au Japon (In Japan)
- Au Sénégal (In Senegal)
There are a handful of exceptions to this rule. The following countries ending in the letter e are masculine:
- Au Mexique (In Mexico)
- Au Cambodge (In Cambodia)
- Au Mozambique (In Mozambique)
- Au Zimbabwe (In Zimbabwe)
- Au Belize (In Belize)
In the case of most cities, à is used on its own:
- à Paris (In Paris)
- à New-York (In New York [the city])
- à Londres (In London)
There are a handful of exceptions:
- à la Nouvelle-Orléans (In New Orleans)
- à la Haye (In the Hague)
- à la Havane (In Havana)
States and Provinces
When it comes to states and provinces, things get a little bit more complicated due to historical boundaries. For the most part, states and provinces are referenced with the preposition dans:
- Dans le New-York (In New York [the state])
- Dans le Loiret (In Loiret)
- Dans l’Ontario (In Ontario)
However, with states and provinces that were historically independent, you’ll need to use the preposition they would take if they were countries:
- Au Québec (In Quebec)
- En Catalogne (In Catalonia)
- Au pays Basque (In the Basque region)
- En Louisiane (In Louisiana)
- Au Texas (In Texas)
- En Floride (In Florida)
Using De: Expressing Coming from Somewhere
Now that you’ve mastered how to use the à group of prepositions when talking about places you’re going to or are in, using de will be a snap.
De translates as “from.” Like à, it’s part of a group of associated pronouns:
- Du is used with singular, masculine nouns.
- De la is used with singular, feminine nouns.
- De l’ is used with singular nouns.
- Des is used with plural nouns (masculine or feminine).
But like the à pronouns, there’s a small change when it comes to feminine countries and masculine countries starting with a vowel. Thus:
- Du is used with singular, masculine countries (du Sénégal, du Portugal).
- De is used with singular, feminine countries (de France).
- D’ is used with countries starting with a vowel (masculine or feminine) (d’Angola, d’Angleterre).
- Des is used with plural countries (masculine or feminine) (des États-Unis).
In the case of cities and states, de or d’ replaces à:
Je viens de New-York. (I’m from New York.)
Je reviens mardi d’Alabama. (I’m coming back from Alabama on Tuesday.)
Wrapping your head around the use of French preposition is an important step towards fluency. So gear up with this guide to perfect your ups and downs and everything in between!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.