In English, you get on the train. In French, you get in the train.
In English, you’re in bed. In French, you’re at your bed.
It seems no matter what you try to say, when it comes to French prepositions, you just can’t get it right!
This can happen even to the most advanced French learners.
Why are French prepositions so hard to master?
The truth is, prepositions can be one of the toughest elements of any foreign language, because the conception of place, time and movement—the three things that prepositions evoke—is so abstract.
Each language has its own way of conceiving of these notions, and that means that each time you learn a new language, you’re going to have to get into the heads of the people speaking it.
In other words, to master French prepositions, you have to forget everything you know about prepositions in English.
It’s time to start from scratch!
What Exactly Are Prepositions, Anyway?
As with any grammatical element of French, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with first. So let’s start by defining what exactly a preposition is.
If you look at the word “preposition,” you can probably already guess that it’s a word that comes before something; it’s pre-posed. But that doesn’t help very much.
In reality, a preposition is a word that gives you an indication of one of three things: place, time or movement.
Let’s break things down into smaller parcels and go from there.
French Prepositions of Place
Prepositions of place are perhaps the best place to start. Of all prepositions, they are the most physically present in space and thus can be the easiest ones to tackle.
Prepositions of place allow you to physically situate a person, place or thing in space. The prepositions of place in French are:
There are also further compound prepositions of place (and indeed all categories), but it’s best to start with the simple ones, and some of these are fairly straightforward to a learner of French.
Sur (on), sous (under), entre (between), dans (in), devant (in front of) and derrière (behind) all very closely resemble their counterparts in English in terms of usage. (We’ll get to that pesky little chez in a second!)
There are a few exceptions, however, that have to do with a difference in conceiving of space in English and in French. For example, in English, you’ll say, “I’m on the bus.” But in French, you’ll say, Je suis dans le bus. Dans is used in French for any form of transportation, including trains, buses, trams and trolleys.
Another exception has to do with the occasional usage of à as a preposition of place, even though, as we’ll see in a moment, it’s usually a preposition of movement. As a preposition of place, it’s used to mean “at,” however, the French have extra uses for à that do not correspond with “at” in English. These generally have to do with times where, in English, we would say “in” but not actually mean we are inside of something: For example, the above sentence about being “in bed.”
Here’s another example. In English, you’ll say, “I’m in Paris.” But in French, you’ll say Je suis à Paris. À is used for any city name, while au is used for any masculine country name and en for any feminine country name:
Je suis en France.
(I’m in France.)
Je suis au Brésil.
(I’m in Brazil.)
You can also use the compound à + [article] forms of this preposition for places (like the supermarket, school or church):
Je suis au supermarché.
(I’m at the supermarket.)
Je suis à l’église.
(I’m at church.)
Je suis au parc.
(I’m at the park.)
Je suis à l’école.
(I’m at school.)
Je suis à la banque.
(I’m at the bank.)
Je suis allé aux marchés de Noël.
(I went to the Christmas markets.)
Fairly straightforward so far, right?
The one difficulty you may have with prepositions of place is with the word chez. Why? Because it just plain doesn’t exist in English. That being said, you’ll soon find that it’s a very useful preposition to have in your arsenal.
Chez can often be translated as “at ___’s house.” For example, if you’re going to Marie’s house, you’d say, Je vais chez Marie. The only issue with this translation is that chez doesn’t always mean someone’s house; it can also mean someone’s work. For example, if you are going to the doctor’s office, you don’t go au bureau du médecin, but rather chez le médecin. Here are some more examples:
Je vais chez le coiffeur.
(I’m going to the hairdresser’s.)
Je vais chez le dentiste.
(I’m going to the dentist’s.)
Je reviens de chez Pierre.
(I just got back from Pierre’s house.)
Elle habite chez ses parents.
(She lives at her parents’ house.)
It’s no wonder that you often find restaurants with chez in the title; if a restaurant is called chez Pierre, it means “Pierre’s place”!
French Prepositions of Time
Once you’ve mastered prepositions of place, it’s time to move on to French prepositions of time. French prepositions of time, as their name suggests, help you situate people, places, things and events in time. The French prepositions of time are:
Many of these do have direct translations into English, like we saw with the prepositions of place.
These include avant (before), après (after), vers (around) and depuis (since). Pendant and pour are a little bit pesky, both translating to “for.” We’ll get to them in a moment.
For the most part, many of these prepositions act the way they do in English… of course, with a few exceptions. One notable one is depuis. Depuis is used like “since” when speaking about things that have occurred since a specific date:
Elle habite à Paris depuis 2006.
(She has lived in Paris since 2006.)
However, it is also used with certain durations.
Take a look at these examples:
Elle habite à Paris depuis 2 ans.
Elle revient à Paris pour 2 ans.
Elle a habité à Paris pendant 2 ans.
The first example means that she has lived in Paris for the past two years. She moved to Paris two years ago. We do not know if or when she will leave Paris.
The second example means that she plans to be returning to Paris for two years. She has an established plan to be in Paris for two years, at which point, she will be leaving Paris.
The last example means that at some point in the past, she lived in Paris for two years, but she no longer lives in Paris.
This also shows you, to a certain extent, the difference between pour and pendant. Pour refers to an established duration of time in the future or in the present and future. Pendant refers to a duration of time at any time. Pour can also be used to establish a deadline. For example:
Il faut terminer le projet pour le 15.
(The project must be finished by/for the 15th.)
French prepositions of time often do have English counterparts, but they are not always used the same way. This has quite a bit to do with the perception of time in English and in French, particularly the ways that the present, present continuous and various past tenses are used in both languages. It’s important to work hard to master the French past tenses in order to have the tools to use prepositions of time properly.
French Prepositions of Movement
Prepositions are also used to describe movement. While these prepositions are often related to prepositions of space, they are not always the same. Here are the French prepositions of movement:
These are actually fairly straightforward, nicely enough!
Each one has an English translation: vers (towards), à (to), de (from), par (by, by way of).
The only tough point here is that two of these prepositions are modified with regards to the object of the preposition, or the noun that follows. The two prepositions that follow this rule are à and de.
With à, the form is modified in the following manner depending on whether the object of the preposition is feminine, masculine or plural, or if it begins with a vowel:
Je vais à l’école.
(I’m going to school.)
Je vais au supermarché.
(I’m going to the supermarket.)
Je vais aux Seychelles.
(I’m going to the Seychelles.)
Je vais à la bibliothèque.
(I’m going to the library.)
In much the same way, de is modified depending on whether the object of the preposition is feminine, masculine or plural, or if it begins with a vowel:
Je reviens de l’école.
(I just got back from school.)
Je reviens du supermarché.
(I just got back from the supermarket.)
Je reviens des Seychelles.
(I just got back from the Seychelles.)
Je reviens de la bibliothèque.
(I just got back from the library.)
Once you’ve mastered basic French prepositions, it will be much easier to address compound prepositions—but that’s another story for another time!
Until then, keep using your basic prepositions, and practice them every chance you get.