A, AN or ONE, SOME, ANY — To translate this notion, the French use a combination of 2 articles ; the indefinite article (un, une, des, negative pas de), and the partitive article (du, de la, de l’, des, negative pas de). The key to understanding them relies on understanding that it is all a question of specification of quantity.
When building your sentence, it’s better if you don’t translate from English but rather understand whether you are talking about a precise quantity or a vague one, and use the corresponding French article.
Click on the link below to hear my audio recording of this lesson.
1 – The French Partitive Articles
When you are talking about a portion of an item (food), or something that cannot be quantified (e.g. qualities, like patience), use a partitive article:
- du (+ masculine word)
- de la (+ feminine word),
- de l’ (followed by a vowel),
- des (+ plural word).
2 – Du, de la, de l’, des = Unspecified Quantity
The French partitive articles express a notion of quantity: a vague one, a non-specific one.
Important: these articles are often used after the verbs vouloir (“Je voudrais du vin”) or avoir (“J’ai des chats”) and with food.
It’s the notion of “some” in English, but we don’t always use the word “some”. Often, we use nothing at all.
In French, you need to “accompany” your word with something.
- Je voudrais de l’eau, s’il vous plait. (some water, maybe a glass, or maybe a bottle…)
- Le professeur a de la patience. (patience ; you are not saying how much patience the teacher has, just that he/she has some)
- Voici du gâteau. (some of it, not the whole cake)
To describe an unspecified plural quantity, use “des” (both feminine and masculine) . This tells you there is more than one item, but again, it’s a vague plural quantity (could be 2, could be 10,000 or more)… This “des” usually applies to whole items, that you could count, but decided not to.
- J’ai des Euros. (more than one, but I am not telling exactly how many)
- Je vais acheter des pommes. (I’m going to buy apples. In English, we’d probably won’t use an article there. Maybe some, but not necessarily. In French, you need to use “des”)
- Elle a des amies formidables (she has (some) great friends)
3 – More About Translating “Some” in French
In English, the word “some” is used for unspecified quantity (I would like some milk) but also as a derogatory adjective (he went home with some girl).
In French, you would never say “il est rentré chez lui avec de la fille”…He didn’t go home with an unspecified quantity of a girl!! So be careful, translation doesn’t always work.
Same thing goes with one of my example “elle a des amis formidables”. In English, if you say “she has some great friends” you’d be strongly implying that her other friends are not so great… So here, we’d use an article when in English you’d probably use nothing “she has great friends”. You need to use the French logic :”she has an “unspecified quantity plural” great friends” = “elle a des amis formidables
Some food items are usually referred to as singular in English, although they are really plural. Like rice.
There are many grains of rice, but it’s rare that you are counting them one by one…
So rice is considered as a single ingredient, singular masculine “le riz”.
If you need to count each grain, then you’d use the expression “grain de riz” – Il y a 3 grains de riz sur la table. But, more often, you’d say something like “J’achète du riz” ( I buy some rice, or I buy rice).
In my beginner and intermediate level French audio books, many chapters talk about food, or take place in a restaurant, and you’ll find these articles used in context in each chapters.
4 – French Indefinite Articles and Numbers
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When you are talking about a whole item, use:
- un (+ masculine word)
- une (+ feminine word).
Remark: the indefinite article ‘a, an’, and the cardinal number ‘one’ have the same translation in French.
- Voici une fille. (a girl, one girl)
- Donne-moi une pomme. (an apple, one apple)
- J’ai un Euro. (an Euro, one Euro)
- Je cherche un beau livre. (a pretty book)
- J’achète une robe bleue. (a blue dress)
If you have more than one, then you’d use numbers : 2, 3, 10… with numbers, you don’t use any articles. To master French numbers, train with my audio French Numbers and exercises series – exclusively available on my French Today’s blog.
- J’ai trois chats. I have three cats.
5 – More Specific Quantity = Expressions of quantity + de or d’
This is usually the part that confuses students.
Even if it’s not an article per se, I think it should be studied in this lesson since this is really the key to understanding it all.
When you use an expression of quantity (a kilo of…, a bottle of…, a little bit of…) you are expressing a very specific quantity.
And these are followed by the preposition de or d’ (+ vowel or h), meaning “of”, exactly like in English.
You don’t say “a bottle some water”. You say “a bottle of water”.
It’s the same in French: we say: “Une bouteille d’eau” (of water), not “une bouteille de l’eau”( de l’ = some).
Unfortunately, this “de” or “d'” looks a lot like “de l’, du, des etc…” hence the confusion.
So, in French, after an expression of quantity, we use “de” or “d'” (+ word starting with a vowel).
6 – Common French Expressions of Quantity
Of course, quantity are going to be very common with food items. So you are likely to use these constructions a lot, since the French are always talking about food!
- Un verre de vin (a glass OF wine, NOT DU, you do not say “a glass some wine”)
- Une bouteille de champagne (a bottle of champagne)
- Une carafe d’eau (a pitcher of water – de becomes d’ + vowel)
- Un litre de jus de pomme (a liter of apple juice)
- Une assiette de charcuterie (a plate of cold cuts)
- Un kilo de pommes de terre (a kilo of potatoes)
- Une botte de carottes (a bunch of carrots)
- Une barquette de fraises (a box of strawberries)
- Une part de tarte (a slice of pie).
And do not forget all the adverbs, that also specify quantities :
- Un peu de fromage (a bit of cheese)
- Beaucoup de lait (a lot of milk).
- Quelques morceaux de lards (a few pieces of bacon).
Note that in spoken French, this “de” is very much glided, so almost silent (just to make things more difficult!)
7 – Specific Quantity is Zero, None = Pas + de or d’
Following the same logic, PAS is a specified quantity ; none. So pas is also followed by the preposition de or d’. (Except after the verb “être” when the article doesn’t change).
- J’ai des amis BUT Je n’ai pas d’amis. (I don’t have any friends)
- Elle a beaucoup de patience BUT Elle n’a pas de patience. (She has no patience)
- Il y a 5 livres BUT Il n’y a pas de livre. (There is no book)
BUT: C’est un ami, ce n’est pas un ami.
8 – French Partitive and Indefinite Article Recap
Some things are easy to quantify: one apple. It’s a whole apple. You usually buy, eat, need one, 2, 3 apples…
But you may decide to be vague, and say “des pommes” = more than one, but I don’t know exactly how many.
Now, some things are less easily quantifiable… You don’t buy “one rice”. You buy either “one kilo of rice” (a kilo of, an expression of quantity), or “some rice” (unspecified quantity of an item which is not easily quantifiable).
So you need to ask yourself Am I talking about:
- a very specific quantity (a number, or an expression of quantity : une pomme, 5 pommes, un kilo de pommes, une bouteille de vin).
- an unspecified quantity of an item (du vin), or an unspecified quantity of something that is not easily quantifiable (du riz, de la patience)
- more than one of an item, but a vague plural quantity (des pommes)
- no item at all (pas de pomme)
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9 – French Partitive and Indefinite Articles Exercise
So, let’s do some exercises to test your understanding: complete using un, une, des, du, de la, de l’, de or d’
1- Je voudrais 2 kilos ____ pommes s’il vous plaît.
2- Je n’ai pas ____ chien.
3- Regarde ! ____ maison rose.
4- Je voudrais ____ gâteau s’il vous plaît (a whole one)
5- Je voudrais ____ gâteau s’il vous plaît (a portion of it)
6_ je voudrais ____ part ____ gâteau s’il vous plaît (a slice of cake).
7- Non merci, je ne veux pas____ gâteau.
8- Je voudrais ____ eau, s’il vous plaît.
9- Tu as ____ courage.
10- Achète ____ oranges !
11- Voici ____ glace à la vanille.
Answers : 1- de, 2- de, 3- une, 4- un, 5- du, 6- une…de, 7- de, 8- de l’, 9- du, 10- des, 11- une/de la.
Learn about French definite articles le, la, l’, les and their “mutant” forms au, aux and du, des.
What about une glace à la fraise et une confiture de fraises ? Check out my article to figure out why French uses “à la” and “de” there.
Learning French in context is the best way to get these French nuances: check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.