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To describe a specific thing, use the definite article: Le (masculine singular) La (feminine singular) L’ (followed by a vowel) Les (plural) Note: these articles remain the same in the negative: pas le, pas la, pas l', pas les.

Ex: Je cherche le téléphone. (I’m looking for the phone)
Ex: Voici la maison de ma soeur. (Here is the house of my sister)
- note the construction definite article + noun + de + noun to show possession.
Ex: Où sont les toilettes ? (Where is the bathroom)
Ex: Je ne travaille pas à l’ordinateur. (I’m not working on the computer)

The definite article is also used with general concepts, where in English you’ll use no article.
If you have no article in English, you could be omitting a word, like “some” (which you don’t always say). Try adding “in general” to the end of your sentence, and if it works, use the definite article…

Ex: Je n’aime pas le lait .(Milk, in general)
Ex: Les Français sont sympathiques. (French people, as a collectivity)
Ex: La patience est une qualité utile. (Patience, in general)

– The definite article is often used after verbs like aimer, adorer, admirer, detester, préférer, etc… since these verbs introduce nouns taken in a general sense.
Ex: J’aime le théâtre mais je préfère le cinema.

The best way to get used to all these little words is to study them in context: check out my French audio books.

Contractions of the definite article – the mutant form au, aux, du, des

Now, here is what often confuses students. The definite article contracts with the prepositions “à” and “de” to create a “mutant” form:

– À + le = au
Ex: Je vais au supermarché (at the supermarket)
– À + les = aux
Ex: Je parle aux amis de ma soeur (to the friends of my sister)
– À + l’ and à + la do not contract.

– De + le = du
Ex: Je ne reviens pas du concert, je reviens de la bibliothèque (from the concert- from the library)
– De + les = des
Ex: Je parle des amis de ma soeur (about my sister’s friends)
– De l’ and de la do not contract.

Note: these forms do not change in the negative.

Now, this is confusing. As you now see, the words “du” and “des” can have different meanings: (see my blog post on indefinite and partitive articles)
Ex: J’ai des amis (some friends = indefinite or partitive article, plural)
Ex: Je parle des amis d’Anne (about Anne’s friends = about the friends of Anne = contraction of the definite article)

The difference will show in the negative:
Ex: Je n’ai pas d’amis. (the indefinite and partitive articles become “de” in the negative)
Ex: Je ne parle pas des amis d’Anne (no change for the definite article, whether it is contracted or not)

Test your understanding

See if you can grasp the differences among:

  • J’achète un poisson (a whole one)
  • J’achète du poisson (some fish ; to cook probably, an unspecified amount)
  • J’achète le poisson bleu (the blue one, specifically)
  • Les poissons sont beaux (fish in general are pretty)

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Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 20 years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Most of my audiobooks are recorded at several speeds to help you conquer the modern French language. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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