There are some little words that are everywhere in French: the French definite articles le, la, l’ and les are among them. There are so many articles in French: when do you use the definite article? What about its “mutant” contracted forms? Here are my explanations.
1 – Forms of the French Definite Articles
The French definite article has four forms:
- Le (masculine singular),
- La (feminine singular),
- L’ (followed by a vowel),
- Les (plural).
Unlike the French indefinite articles, the French definite articles remain the same in the negative: pas le, pas la, pas l’, pas les.
Now let’s see how we use the French definite articles.
2 – French Definite Articles To Describe a Specific Thing
To describe a specific thing, French uses the definite articles. Just like English uses “the”.
- Je cherche le téléphone. (I’m looking for the phone)
- Où sont les toilettes ? (Where is the bathroom)
- Je ne travaille pas à l’ordinateur. (I’m not working on the computer)
3 – French Definite Articles To Show Possession
In English, you have a specific construction to show possession. You add an apostrophe and an S.
- Here is my sister’s house.
In French, this construction doesn’t exist at all. You have to use the alternate English construction: the house of my sister.
- Voici la maison de ma soeur.
4 – French Definite Articles With General Concepts
The definite article is also used with general concepts, where in English you’ll use no article. This concept is more difficult for English speakers because you have to add a word where English uses none, so it’s important that you spend time to understand why French uses an article there.
If you have no article in English, you could be omitting a word, like “some” (which you don’t always say). If you can say “some”, it is likely to be a French partitive article (du, de la, de l’, des), not a definite article.
Try adding “in general” to the end of your sentence, and if it works, use the definite article…
- Je n’aime pas le lait .(Milk, in general)
- Les Français sont sympathiques. (French people, as a collectivity, so in general)
- La patience est une qualité utile. (Patience, in general)
The best way to get used to all these little words is to study them in context: check out my French audio books.
5 – The French Definite Article is Used After Certain Verbs
The definite article is often used after certain verbs :
- aimer – to like, love enjoy
- adorer – to love, worship
- admirer – to admire
- detester – to hate
- préférer – to prefer, like X more than Y
Since these verbs introduce nouns taken in a general sense.
- J’aime le théâtre mais je préfère le cinéma.
6 – Contractions of the French Definite Article – the Mutant Forms “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
Je vais au supermarché (to the supermarket)
- À + les = aux
Je parle aux amis de ma soeur (to the friends of my sister)
- À + l’ and à + la do not contract.
- De + le = du
Je ne reviens pas du concert, je reviens de la bibliothèque (from the concert- from the library)
- De + les = des
Je parle des amis de ma soeur (about my sister’s friends)
- De l’ and de la do not contract.
This is an important part of the French language, and although you may know the rule, it takes time to make this a reflexe.
However, if you do say “de le” or “à le” in French, it sounds terrible.
So I really suggest you grab your French exercise book and train on applying these contractions until they become second nature to you!
7 – Du and Des = Partitive Articles or Contractions of the Definite Article?
Now, if you have studied my lesson on indefinite and partitive articles, you may be a bit confused (and I am being polite!)
As you now see, the words “du” and “des” can have different meanings:
- J’ai des amis (some friends = indefinite or partitive article, plural)
- 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:
- Je n’ai pas d’amis. (the indefinite and partitive articles become “de” in the negative)
- Je ne parle pas des amis d’Anne (no change for the definite article, whether it is contracted or not)
8 – Test Your Understanding of the French Articles
Now that you know everything about the French indefinite, partitive and definite articles, let’s 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)