Definite,indefinite and partitive articles in French

August 06, 2018 Nicolas C

All you need to know about French articles

French articles are sometimes confusing for language students because they have to agree with the nouns they modify and because they don't always correspond to articles in other languages. As a general rule, if you have a noun in French, there is virtually always an article in front of it, unless you use some other type of determiner such as a possessive adjective (monton, etc.) or a demonstrative adjective (cecette, etc).

French has three different kinds of articles:

  1. Definite articles
  2. Indefinite articles
  3. Partitive articles

The table below summarizes the different forms of French articles.

French Articles

  Definite  Indefinite  Partitive
masculine le un du
feminine la une de la
in front of a vowel   l' un/une de l'
plural les des des

Tip: When learning new vocabulary, make your vocabulary lists with a definite or indefinite article for each noun. This will help you learn the gender of each noun along with the word itself, which is important because the articles (as well as adjectivespronouns, and just about everything else) change to agree with the gender of the noun.

French Definite Articles

The French definite article corresponds to "the" in English. There are four forms of the French definite article:

  1. le   masculine singular
  2. la   feminine singular
  3. l'    m or f in front of a vowel or h muet
  4. les  m or f plural

Which definite article to use depends on three things: the noun's gender, number, and first letter:

  • If the noun is plural, use les
  • If it's a singular noun starting with a vowel or h muet, use l'
  • If it's singular and starts with a consonant or h aspiré, use le for a masculine noun and la for a feminine noun

Meaning and Usage of the French Definite Article

The definite article indicates a specific noun.

  •    Je vais à la banque. / I'm going to the bank.
  •    Voici le livre que j'ai lu. / Here is the book I read.

The definite article is also used in French to indicate the general sense of a noun. This can be confusing, as definite articles are not used in this way in English.

  • J'aime la glace. / I like ice cream.
  • C'est la vie! / That's life!

Definite Article Contractions

The definite article changes when preceded by the preposition à or de - the preposition and article contract into a single word.

French Indefinite Articles

The singular indefinite articles in French correspond to "a," "an," or "one" in English, while the plural corresponds to "some." There are three forms of the French indefinite article.

  1. un    masculine
  2. une   feminine
  3. des   m or f plural

Note that the plural indefinite article is the same for all nouns, whereas the singular has different forms for masculine and feminine.

Meaning and Usage of the French Indefinite Article

The indefinite article usually refers to an unspecified person or thing.

  •  J'ai trouvé un livre. / I found a book.
  •  Il veut une pomme. / He wants an apple.

The indefinite article can also refer to just one of something:

  • Il y a un étudiant dans la salle. / There is one student in the room.
  • J'ai une sœur. / I have one sister.

The plural indefinite article means "some":

  • J'ai acheté des pommes. / I bought some apples.
  • Veux-tu acheter des livres? / Do you want to buy some books?

When referring to a person's profession or religion, the indefinite is not used in French, although it is used in English.

  • Je suis professeur. / I am a teacher.
  • Il va être médecin. / He's going to be a doctor.

In a negative construction, the indefinite article changes to de, meaning "(not) any":

  • J'ai une pomme. / Je n'ai pas de pommes.
  • I have an apple. / I don't have any apples.

French Partitive Articles

The partitive articles in French correspond to "some" or "any" in English. There are four forms of the French partitive article:

  1. du      masculine singular
  2. de la   feminine singular
  3. de l'    m or f in front of a vowel or h muet
  4. des     m or f plural

The form of the partitive article to use depends on three things: the noun's number, gender, and first letter:

  • If the noun is plural, use des
  • If it's singular starting with a vowel or h muet, use de l'
  • If it's a singular noun and starts with a consonant or h aspiré, use du for a masculine noun and de la for a feminine noun

Meaning and Usage of the French Partitive Article

The partitive article indicates an unknown quantity of something, usually food or drink. It is often omitted in English.

  • Avez-vous bu du thé ? / Did you drink some tea?
  • J'ai mangé de la salade hier. / I ate salad yesterday.
  • Nous allons prendre de la glace. / We're going to have some ice cream.

After adverbs of quantity, use de instead of the partitive article.

  • Il y a beaucoup de thé. / There is a lot of tea.
  • J'ai moins de glace que Thierry. / I have less ice cream than Thierry.

In a negative construction, the partitive article changes to de, meaning "(not) any":

  • J'ai mangé de la soupe. / Je n'ai pas mangé de soupe.
  • I ate some soup. / I didn't eat any soup.

Choosing a French Article

The French articles may seem similar at times, but they are not interchangeable. This page will help you understand when and why to use each one.

Definite Article

The definite article can talk about a specific item or something in general.

  • J'ai mangé le gâteau. / I ate the cake (the whole thing, or the specific cake that we were just talking about).
  • J'aime les films. / I like movies (in general) or I like the movies (that we just saw).

Indefinite Article

The indefinite article talks about one of something, and is the easiest of the French articles. I can almost guarantee that if what you want to say requires "a," "an," or "one" in English - unless you're talking about someone's profession - you need the indefinite article.

  •  J'ai mangé un gâteau. / I ate one cake (there were five, and I ate one of them).
  •  Je veux voir un film. / I want to see a movie.

Partitive Article

The partitive is usually used when discussing eating or drinking, because one normally only eats some butter, cheese, etc., not all of it.

  • J'ai mangé du gâteau. / I ate some cake (one slice, or a few bites).
  • Je cherche de l'eau. / I'm looking for some water.

Partitive Article vs Indefinite Article

The partitive indicates that the quantity is unknown or uncountable. When the quantity is known/countable, use the indefinite article (or a number):

  • Il a mangé du gâteau. / He ate some cake. 
  • Il a mangé un gâteau. / He ate a cake.


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