Learn How to Use Different Types of French Articles

“Je prendrais une tarte aux pommes” “Elle a essayé le gâteau” “Il mange des biscuits” “Nous mettons de la crème dans notre café” “Ces frites n’ont pas de sel !” “Avez-vous du fromage ?” are phrases you might hear when discussing food. These all involve articles – different types of articles, which are categorized as definite, indefinite, and partitive. They are used quite a bit with food and since gastronomy is an important part of French culture, let us look at the uses of these different types of articles.

"Definite" Articles in French

The definite articles, la, le, les, are used to indicate particular items to which we refer, such as le gâteau, la pomme, and les desserts. If you refer to le gâteau, it is a particular cake that you have singled out, which you could probably describe to some degree, e.g., “Le gâteau que mon oncle Stéphane a fait est très joli et délicieux” or “Le gâteau d’anniversaire arrive bientôt”. You could also refer to the other items above: “Elle m’a offert la pomme qui était sur la table” and “J’adore les desserts de cette pâtisserie”. Definite articles can also be used to speak of general topics, such as la cuisine française, le déjeuner, and les restaurants de Paris, e.g., “La cuisine française est très connue”, “Le déjeuner en France commence à midi”, “Les restaurants de Paris sont assez chers”.        

"Indefinite" Articles in French

The indefinite articles, une, un, des, are used for items that are not specified, such as une tarte, one of many or one that you haven’t seen yet or that comes from a whole collection of tarts.

This is a possible exchange between two people:

  • Pourrais-tu m’apporter une bouteille d’eau gazeuse ?
  • Oui, je prendrai la bouteille que tu as mise au frigo.

The first person asks for an unspecified bottle of sparkling water and the second person responds by referring to a specific bottle that has been placed in the refrigerator.

This is another possible exchange:

  • Les Mayle ont vécu une grande histoire d’amour.
  • Oui, pour la gastronomie française !

"Partitive" Articles in French

The partitive articles, de la, du, de l’, and des, are formed with the preposition de and the definite article. (Du and des are contractions.) The partitive article is used when referring to mass nouns, ones that aren’t counted, such as grains of salt on your tomatoes. Thus, when cooking and eating, we often refer to indefinite quantities such as du sel, de la crème, and des épinards (although the plural form of partitive articles is rare). Remember to distinguish the plural partitive from the plural indefinite article, e.g., “Ils mettent des carottes dans la salade” and “Ils nous ont apporté des fleurs”. The partitive de l’ is the elided form of de la, used with feminine nouns, and also precedes masculine nouns beginning with vowel sounds (except in the case of words beginning with an aspirated h). Thus we can say de l’eau, as well as de l’aïoli, but would say du hareng.

When we speak of the absence of these items, we use the word de without an article before the noun, e.g., “Il n’y a pas de sucre dans ce dessert”, “Vous n’avez pas pris de petit déjeuner ?” and “Ne mets pas de sel dans le thé !” The exception to this is with verbes de préférence, which include aimer, adorer, admirer, apprécier, préférer (of course), détester, and haïr. Thus we would say: “Je ne mets pas de sucre dans mon café parce que je n’aime pas le café sucré”. (A French person once looked at me like I was an alien because I did not put sugar in my coffee. The only thing worse I can think of than sugar in my coffee is stevia in my coffee.)

When to Use Which Type of Articles?

Our discussion about definite articles included a reference to general categories, such as la cuisine française, and it is also useful to know that we can speak of broad topics, such as friendship, using definite, indefinite, and partitive articles. For instance, someone might ask you “As-tu des amis ?” and you could respond “Oui ! J’ai des amis” or “Non, je n’ai pas d’amis”. Idem for abstract ideas, such as courage, idées, and amour. “Il faut du courage” is a good response to the negative phrase above.  

Knowing when to use which type of article may take some adjustment, particularly if the languages with which you are familiar do not function in quite the same way. Once I heard a French guy in New York standing at one of those salad counters where you tell the person working behind it the specific items you would like in your salad. He listed items like this: “some lettuce, some carrots, some celery, some cheese, some tomatoes, some crispy noodles ...” and it seemed odd that he felt the need to repeat “some” for each item until I remembered that what he would have said in French was “de la laitue, des carottes, du céléri, du fromage, des tomates, des nouilles croustillantes...” and realized why that was happening.

It’s true that you can translate partitive articles into English as “some”, at least in some contexts. But sometimes we eliminate them entirely, which we do much less often in French. Thus the anglophone version of ordering the French guy’s salad would be: “lettuce, carrots, celery, cheese, tomatoes, crispy noodles ...” – which especially makes sense in New York, since New Yorkers are in too much of a hurry to repeat a determiner such as “some”.

There are certain “rules” for knowing which article to use when, but it is also important to pay attention to the context in which the items to which you are referring appear. You could say “Je prends le gâteau”, “Je prends un gâteau”, “Je prends du gâteau”, and “Je prends des gâteaux”, depending on whether or not you are eating a specified cake, presumably small enough for one person, an unspecified cake, several cakes, or some of a larger cake that is being offered to everyone present at a gathering. The same is true for more abstract nouns, such as idées: “Ils ont eu l’idée de lui préparer un gâteau d’anniversaire. C’était une très bonne idée ! On est content d’avoir des amis qui ont des idées si généreuses.”

While you are brushing up on your definite, indefinite, and partitive articles, you can always have actual food items in front of you to reinforce what you are learning and to appreciate the gastronomical world with which they are associated. At the moment, I am appreciating a cup of coffee – with no sugar added, of course.

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