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Understanding French Prepositions of Place

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020
French prepositions of places and countries

Why do you say “Je vais en France” but “Je vais au Japon”? Like any inanimate object, continents, countries, and regions also have genders in French. The ending will usually tell you which is feminine or masculine and help you choose the correct French preposition of place.

1 – What is a French Preposition of Place?

A French preposition of place is a little word which shows the location of someone or something.

Le petit chien est dans son panier.
The little dog is in his dog bed.

Sometimes, a preposition of place shows the location of someone or something compared to something else.

Le chat est sous la table. Le vase est sur la table.
The cat is under the table. The vase is on the table.

And sometimes, a preposition of place introduces a geographical place like a country, or a city, or a region.

Moi, j’habite à Paris. Et toi ? est-ce que tu habites en France ?
I live in Paris. And you? Do you live in France?

The prepositions of places are pretty straightforward in French and often you can translate them directly from English. It’s not the case with French prepositions of place introducing geographic places, therefore that’s what I’ll explain in depth in this article

But first, let’s go over the simple French prepositions of place.

1 – Simple French Prepositions of Place

  1. À – at, in
    Je suis à la maison.
    I’m at home.
  2. Chez – at someone’s place
    I am at Pierre’s : je suis chez Pierre.
    Je vais chez le médecin
    I’m going to the doctor’s
    Note that you could say both “chez moi” or “à la maison” for I’m home!
  3. Dans – in or inside
    Le petit chien est dans son panier.
    The little dog is in his dog bed.
  4. Derrière
    Behind something, in the back of.
    Le jardin est derrière la maison.
    The garden is behind the house.
    I know this preposition of place is weird for English students but we do use it a lot in French.
  5. Devant
    In front of
    Devant chez moi, il y a la poste.
    The post-officie is in front of my house.
    This is a good example of how French prepositions can combine to create more complex ones.
  6. Entre
    Between
    Je suis assise entre Pierre et Anne.
    I’m sitting between Pierre and Anne.
  7. Sous
    Le chat est sous la table.
    The cat is under the table.
    Isn’t it always the case?
  8. Sur
    Le vase est sur la table.
    The vase is on the table.
  9. Vers
    Toward, near
    Il marche vers toi.
    He is walking toward you.
French prepositions of place

2 – More Complex Prepositions of Place

Now sometimes prepositions combine together to make what is called in grammatical linguo “French prepositional phrases”. Lovely isn’t it?

They are still commonly referred to as prepositions of place or expressions of place and are very useful when giving directions in French – like when you are driving for example (see the next paragraph for examples these French prepositions of place used in context).

Many of these prepositions of place can be used at the end of a sentence, or be followed by, well a place actually! In this case, you’d use “de” or “d'” to introduce the place.

For example :
Va à droite
Go/ turn to the right
Le supermarché est à droite de la banque
The supermarket is to the right of the bank

  1. À côté (de)
    Next to, nearby
  2. À droite (de)
    To the right (of)
    Be careful to pronounce the “t” of droite here.
  3. Tout droit
    Straight ahead
    At the opposite of “à droite”, you don’t pronounce the final “t” of “tout droit”.
    This could make a lot of difference when you are trying to understand directions!
  4. À gauche (de)
    To the left (of)
  5. À l’extérieur (de)
    Outside (of)
  6. À l’intérieur (de)
    Inside (of)
  7. Au coin de
    At the corner (of)
  8. Au-dessous (de)
    Below, underneath
  9. Au dessus (de)
    Above, higher than
    “Au-dessous” and “au-dessus” have a very similar pronunciation. It can be confusing even to the French so we often use a hand motion to reinforce these prepositions of place.
  10. Autour (de)
    Around
    I often hear students say “aujourd’hui, je suis resté autour ma maison” – today, I stayed around.
    Unfortunately that doesn’t translate well in French. We’d just say “je suis resté chez moi”. Autour is really physical: “il place ses main autour de sa taille” – he places his hand around her waist.
  11. En arrière (de)
    Behind
  12. En avant
    Onwards
    That’s what Picard says! – Yes, that’s a Star Teck reference!
  13. En bas (de)
    Below, at the bottom of, downstairs
  14. En haut (de)
    Above, at the top of, upstairs
  15. En dehors (de)
    Outside (of)
  16. En dessous (de)
    Below, lower than
  17. En face de
    In front of, facing, across from
  18. En haut de
    Above, at the top of
  19. Loin (de)
    Far (from)
  20. Près (de)
    Near, next (to)

These prepositions of place are used throughout the novel which illustrate my French audiobooks, but directions are covered in particular in chapter 6 of my intermediate French audiobook learning method, À Moi Paris L4.

L3 + L4 À Moi Paris Method – Intermediate

3 – 🚗 How to Give Driving Directions in French

For the pleasure of it, here is an extract of my audiobook – but without the audio though… Anyway, unfortunately as just a text you won’t experience how awesome our French app is… I suggest you buy the audiobook :-)

So Mary and Patrick are driving to Patrick’s older brother place. Mary is following the directions Arnaud (Patrick’s brother) sent her.

Mary
Alors, à Septeuil, il faut prendre à droite au carrefour où il y a la boulangerie. Après, on continue tout droit jusqu’à la mairie, et là, il faut tourner à gauche.
So, at Septeuil, you must turn right at the crossroads where there’s a bakery. Afterwards we keep going straight to the town hall, and there, we must turn to the left.

Patrick
Ok… Je vois la mairie…
Ok… I see the town hall…

Mary
Ok, donc tu vas à gauche, et tu continues pendant environ 5 minutes. Arnaud dit qu’il faut faire attention parce que ce n’est pas une route prioritaire, et il y a des croisements qui sont des priorités à droite, donc il faut aller doucement.
Ok, so you go left and you continue for about 5 minutes. Arnaud says that you must be careful because this is not a road which has the right of way and there are some intersections where there is a right hand right of way, so you must drive slowly.

Patrick
Je déteste les priorités à droite. Quelle règle idiote.
I hate the right hand right of way. What an idiotic rule.

Directions in French

Mary
Ça, je suis bien d’accord avec toi. Alors, après il dit qu’on doit passer devant une grosse ferme, et prendre à droite ; regarde là-bas, tu crois que c’est ça ?
On that, I totally agree with you. So after he says that we should pass in front of a big farm, and then go right, look there, you think that’s it?

Patrick
Euh… c’est une ferme, mais elle n’est pas très grosse. Je fais quoi ?
Hum… It’s a farm, but it’s not very big. What do I do?

Mary
Continue tout droit, on verra bien… Il dit qu’au bout de cette route, il y a un rond- point avec un panneau qui indique Courgent.
Continue straight ahead, we’ll see… He said at the end of the road there is a roundabout with a sign that will indicate Courgent.

Ils continuent donc tout droit, 2 minutes se passent, mais toujours pas de rond-point. Ils décident de faire demi-tour, prennent à gauche avant la ferme, et trouve le rond-point. Ils suivent donc la direction Courgent.

They continue [driving] ahead, 2 minutes go by, but still no round about. They decide to turn around, they take a left in front of the farm and find the roundabout. Then they continue in the direction of Courgent.

Now let’s study the rules of French prepositions used with a geographic place.

4 – 🌎 Recap of the French Prepositions + Geographic Place Rules

Since what follows is quite a long article, I’ll start with a short recap of the French prepositions of geographic place rules.

Here are the general rules to say your are in a geographic place, or going to a geographical in French.

First you may need to review what we mean by “feminine” and “masculine” in French grammar.

  1. Places ending in “E” = feminine = use “en”
    Je suis en France.
  2. Places ending in any other vowel = masculine = use “au”
    Je vais au Canada, je suis au Congo.
  3. Places ending in a consonant = masculine = use “au”
    Je vais au Japon.
  4. Places ending in “S” are usually masculine, but not always. Use “aux”
    Je vais aux États-Unis.
  5. Use “en” + places starting with a vowel or a mute h (no matter whether they are feminine or masculine)
    Je vais en Iran, je vais en Éthiopie.
  6. Use à + cities.
    Je suis à Paris.

Keep in mind there are many exceptions, and very often, the preposition of place you’ll use in France with a particular region is a matter of habits, so has to be learned by heart.
Au Texas, dans le Maryland, en Bourgogne, dans la Creuse….

Prepositions used with French Feminine Countries

5 – General Rule About French Prepositions of Geographic Place

A – French region ending in “e” = feminine

When the name of a region ends in an”e”, it’s usually feminine.
La France, l’Angleterre, la Suisse, la Chine, l’Inde, la Californie, l’Asie

  • To say you’re going to this place, use “en”:
    Je vais… en France, en Italie, en Afrique, en Floride…
  • To say you’re in this place, use “en”:
    Je suis…  en France, en Italie, en Afrique, en Floride…
  • To say you’re coming from this place, use”de”:
    Je viens de France, d’Italie, d’Afrique, de Floride…

There are many exceptions though, such as le Mexique, le Maine, le Zimbabwe, le Cambodge…

French preposition masculine countries

B – French region ending in other vowel or consonant = masculine

When the name of a region ends in any other vowel but “e”, or a consonant, it’s usually masculine:
Le Canada, le Japon, le Portugal, le Burundi, le Luxembourg, le Texas

  • To say you’re going to this place, use “au”:
    Je vais… au Niger, au Brésil, au Maroc, au Congo
  • To say you’re in this place, use “au”:
    Je suis…  au Niger, au Brésil, au Maroc, au Congo
  • To say you’re coming from this place, use “du”:
    Je viens… du Niger, du Brésil, du Maroc, du Congo

When a masculine country starts with a vowel or an H, use the rules of the feminine countries:
L’Iran, l’Ouganda, Oman, Angola, Israël….
Je vais en Iran, je viens d’Angola, je suis en Israël

For more info on country gender, please see this official list
http://publications.europa.eu/code/fr/fr-5000500.htm

Nationalities and prepositions of place in French are explained in depth + exercises + story to illustrate the point of grammar + audio in my beginner French audiobook learning method “À Moi Paris Level 1”, Chapter 11.

L1 + L2 À Moi Paris Method – Beginner
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6 – Particular Cases About French Prepositions of Place

Unfortunately, there are too many exceptions to be listed… So be ready to face many particular cases.

Here are some pointers:

A – French Region ending in a “s” = often plural

A few names of regions are plural.

Most plural regions end in an S (Les États-Unis, les Maldives, les Pays-Bas, les Philippines…), but not all regions ending in an S are plural (le Laos, l’Arkansas, le Texas are some of the many exemples).

  • To say you’re going to this place, use “aux”:
    Je vais… aux États-Unis, aux Maldives
  • To say you’re in this place, use “aux”:
    Je suis…   aux États-Unis, aux Maldives
  • To say you’re coming from this place, use “des”
    Je viens… des États-Unis, des Maldives

Note the pronunciation of “les États-Unis” – there are 2 strong liaisons in Z, whether it’s introduced by “les, aux or des” = Zéta Zuni

B – French prepositions of place for cities

Cities are usually not introduced by any article, and it’s unclear whether they are feminine or masculine. According to l’Accadémie Française, both genders are possible for cities.

So you could say Paris est beau. I prefer saying Paris est belle because Paris refers to la ville de Paris.

But I digress. Let’s go back to what preposition of place you should use with cities.

  • For most cities, to say you’re going to this city, use “à”:
    Je vais… à Paris, à Tokyo, à New-York
  • To say you’re in this city, use “à”:
    Je suis… à Paris, à Tokyo, à New-York
  • To say you’re coming from this city, use “de”:
    Je viens… de Paris, de Tokyo, de New-York

But some cities include an article in their name – Le Havre, Le Caire, La Paz, Les Andelys… The article being part of the proper name, it’s written with an upper-case.

For these names, usually, the definite article contracts with the “à and de”, becoming “au and du” etc…
J’aime Le Havre.
Je parle du Havre.
Je vais au Havre.

C – French prepositions of place for islands

Islands are a messy business in French…

  1. Many don’t have any article, and will be introduced by à or de:
    Je vais à Cuba, à Haïti, à Madagascar
  2. But some islands are masculine:
    Je vais au Japon
  3. And some islands are feminine:
    Je vais en Corse
  4. And other islands are plural:
    Je vais aux Maldives

So the preposition we use to talk about islands in French is more a case by case scenario.

D – French Prepositions of place used with regions and states

Regions and states usually follow the general gender rule: ending in “e” = feminine, other letter = masculine.
La Provence, le Sussex, l’Orégon

For prepositions used with regions and states, it’s very difficult to say there is a rule per se. We tend not to use à, but rather en, au, aux or dans le, dans la, dans les…
It’s really a matter of custom, the way people have been saying it for generations… not grammar.
Au Texas, dans le Maine, en Bourgogne, en Provence, dans la Creuse….

So in many cases, you’re just going to have to learn by heart the way to say being “in” + a region or a state in French.

7 – French Preposition Used With US States List

Note that the US French state names are usually masculine.
Le Maryland, le Texas…

Here is the list of US states which are feminine in French (because they end with an “e”):
La Floride, la Californie, la Caroline du Sud, la Caroline du Nord, la Louisiane, la Georgie, la Virginie-Occidentale (West Virginia), la Virginie (Virginia), la Pennsylvanie.
But watch out for the exception: le Maine.

Names of the different US / USA states in French

Note that “l’Arkansas” and “le Texas” are masculine singular, although they end with an “s” (which is pronounced for both states).

Here is a list of US states with the appropriate preposition to say you are “in” or going “to” these states:

  1. en Alabama
  2. en Alaska
  3. en Arizona
  4. en Arkansas
  5. en Californie
  6. en Caroline du Nord
  7. en Caroline du Sud
  8. dans le Colorado / au Colorado
  9. dans le Connecticut / au Connecticut
  10. dans le Dakota du Nord
  11. dans le Dakota du Sud
  12. dans le Delaware / au Delaware
  13. en Floride
  14. en Géorgie
  15. à Hawaï
  16. en Idaho
  17. en Illinois
  18. en Indiana
  19. en Iowa
  20. dans le Kansas / au Kansas
  21. dans le Kentucky / au Kentucky
  22. en Louisiane
  23. dans le Maine
  24. dans le Maryland / au Maryland
  25. dans le Massachusetts / au Massachusetts
  26. dans le Michigan / au Michigan
  27. dans le Minnesota / au Minnesota
  28. dans le Mississippi / au Mississippi
  29. dans le Missouri / au Missouri
  30. dans le Montana / au Montana
  31. dans le Nebraska / au Nebraska
  32. dans le Nevada / au Nevada
  33. dans le New Hampshire / au New Hampshire
  34. dans le New Jersey / au New Jersey
  35. dans l’État de New York
  36. au Nouveau-Mexique
  37. en Ohio
  38. en Oklahoma
  39. en Orégon
  40. en Pennsylvanie
  41. dans le Rhode Island
  42. dans le Tennessee / au Tennessee
  43. au Texas
  44. en Utah
  45. dans le Vermont / au Vermont
  46. en Virginie
  47. en Virginie-Occidentale
  48. dans l’État de Washington
  49. dans le Wisconsin / au Wisconsin
  50. dans le Wyoming / au Wyoming

8 – How to Memorize Your Prepositions of Place in French

In my opinion, the best way to learn the French prepositions of place is to learn them in context. Pick the places that are relevant to you: for example, the country, region and town you are from and the places you often travel to, and start by training with these. Write down whole sentences which are relevant to you.

Je suis née à Paris, en France. Maintenant, j’habite en France, à Paimpol, en Bretagne, plus exacement dans les Côtes-d’Armor. Mais j’ai habité aux États-Unis pendant seize ans, à Boston, dans le Massachusetts. 

To learn all sorts of French prepositions in context, I suggest you take a look at my level-adapted French audio novels, featuring truly useful and realistic situations, fun story and characters, and entirely recorded using modern French pronunciation.

I post exclusive mini-lessons, tips, pictures and more daily on my Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!

Since we are on the subject of French prepositions, you may also enjoy my articles on:

  1. French Verbs Followed by the preposition à + verb / noun
  2. French Verbs Followed by the preposition de + verb / noun
  3. French Verbs Followed by no preposition + verb
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