French Articles: Definite, Indefinite & Partitive

If you’re new to learning French, one of the first things you’ll have to learn is the definite, indefinite and partitive articles. Basically, these articles are words in grammar that precede nouns. English articles include the, a/an and some.

There are two important things to understand here: 1) In French all nouns have a gender, masculine or feminine; and 2) All French nouns must be preceded by an article.

On this page we’ll look at all three kinds of articles: definite (the = le, la, les), indefinite (un, une, des) and partitive (un, une, des). We’ll also look at the rules for contractions with the prepositions à and de.

Definite Article

French definite articlesThe definite article is a determining word comes before a noun, equating to the in English. In French there are four options depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, plural or starts with a vowel. Here are the definite articles:

  • le precedes masculin nouns: le garçon (the boy).
  • la precedes feminine nouns: la voiture (the car).
  • les precedes plural noun (masculine  feminine): les gens (the people).

l’ precedes masculine and feminine singular nouns starting with a vowel.

Masculine nouns:

  • l’élephant (the elephant)
  • l’hotel (the hôtel)
  • l’ami (male friend)

Feminine nouns:

  • l’amie (female friend)
  • l’île (island)
  • l’école (school)

While you can omit the definite article in English, i.e., ‘I like pizza’, you absolutely must include it in French: ‘J’aime la pizza‘.

Contraction of the definite article

Contractions with à

The French preposition à translates to both ‘to’ and ‘at’. When expressing ‘to the’, you must apply the following four contractions:

  • à + le -> au -> Je vais au magasin. I’m doing to the store.
  • à + la -> à la -> Je vais à la plage. I’m going to the beach
  • à + les -> aux -> Je vais aux États-Unis. I’m going to the United States.
  • à + l’ -> à l’ -> Je vais à l‘aéroport. I go to the airport.

Contractions with de

The preposition de translates to both ‘from’ and ‘of’. When expressing ‘from the’ or ‘of the’ the following contactsions apply:

  • de + le -> du -> Je viens du magasin. I’m coming from the store.
  • de + la -> de la -> Je viens de la plage. I’m coming from the beach.
  • de + les -> des -> Je viens des Etats-Unis. I come from the United States.
  • de + l’ -> de l’ -> Je viens de l’aéroport. I’m coming from the airport.

Definite article examples

  • Je mange le pain. I eat the bread.
  • Je conduis la voiture. I drive the car.
  • Je vois les gens. I see the people.
  • L’ami de Pierre est anglais. Pierre’s friend is English.

Indefinite article

French indefinite articlesThe French indefinite articles are un (a), une (a/an) and des (some).

Un precedes masculine singular nouns:

  • un sac – a bag
  • un livre – a book
  • un homme – a man
  • un ami – a friend

Une precedes feminine singular nouns.

  • une fille – a girl
  • une femme – a woman
  • une maison – a house

Des precedes masculine and feminine plural nouns.

  • des stylos – (some) pens
  • des chiens – (some) dogs
  • des étudiants – (some) students

Similar to the definite article above, you absolutely must include the indefinite article in French before a noun. While you can say ‘I buy pens’ in English, you must say, ‘J’achète des stylos‘ in French. The word ‘some’ is assumed in English but must be included in French.

Indefinite article examples:

  • J’ai un chien dans le jardin. I have a dog in the year.
  • J’achète une table pour la cuisine. I buy a table for the kitchen.
  • Il y a des voiture dans le parking. There are some cars in the parking lot.

Negation rules for the indefinite article

There’s a special negation rule that applies to the indefinite article. Un, une and des all become de in the negative.

  • Est-ce que tu as un chien? Do you have a dog?
  • Non, je n’ai pas de chien. No, I don’t have a (any) dog.

The un becomes de and translates to any. I don’t have ‘any’ dog.

Another example:

  • Est-ce que tu as une voiture? Do you have a car?
  • Non, je n’ai pas de voiture. No, I don’t have a (any) car.

The same applies to plural nouns:

  • Est-ce que tu as des pommes? Do you have some apples?
  • Non, je n’ai pas de pommes. No, I don’t have any apples.

The de in negative sentences becomes d’ before a noun starting with a vowel.

  • Est-ce que tu as des amandes? Do you have some almonds?
  • Non, je n’ai pas d’amandes. No, I don’t have any almonds.

Partitive article

The French partitive article is an indefinite article that precedes an undefined amount or part of something. It would translate to some or any in English. To form the partitive article, combine de with the definite article:

  • de + le = du -> Je veux du pain. I want (some) bread.
  • de + la = de la -> Je veux de la confiture. I (want) some jam.
  • de + les = des -> Je veux des frites. I want (some) French fries.
  • de + l’ = de l’ -> Je veux de l’eau. I want (some) water.

The partitive must precede a noun

In English you can say, I drink juice. However, in French every noun absolutely must be preceded by an article. Hence, to say, ‘I drink juice’ translates to ‘Je bois du jus‘, with the du translating to ‘some‘.

Examples with partitive articles

  • Tu veux de la pizza? Want some pizza?
  • J’apporte du fromage. I’m bringing cheese.
  • Voulez-vous des oignons? Would you like onions?
  • Je prends du sucre et de la crème. I take cream and sugar.
  • Je commande des oeufs. I’m ordering eggs.
  • J’achète du saumon fumé et du camembert. I’m buying smoked salmon and camembert.

Partitive articles in negation

In negative sentences du, de la, des and d’ all become de or d’. The partitive here translates to any.

  • Je n’achète pas de pain. I’m buying (any) bread.
  • Elle ne prend pas de viande. She’s not having any meat.
  • Je ne veux pas de sucre. I don’t want sugar.
  • Il ne veut pas de salade. He doesn’t want salad.

Note de or d’ also replaces the indefinite articles un or une in the negation.

  • Est-ce que tu as un cheval? Non, je n’ai pas de cheval.
    Do you have a horse? No, I don’t have a horse.
  • Est-ce que vous avez une table? Non, nous n’avons pas de table.
    Do you have a table? No, we don’t have a table.

When the verb être is involved the partitive doesn’t change in the negation.

  • C’est de la limonade? Non, ce n’est pas de la limonade.
    Is it lemonade? No, it’s not lemonade.
  • C’est du chocolat? Non, ce n’est pas du chocolat.
    Is it chocolate? No, it’s not chocolate.
  • Ce sont des cerises? Non, ce ne sont pas des cerises.
    Are they cherries? No, they’re not cherries.
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