Guide to French articles

Posted by Josh on 19th Apr 2023 in the blog in the category

French is an article language, which means that in any given sentence, each noun is preceded by an article. Articles are words which let you know whether the noun in question is specified or unspecified.

In English, nouns are almost always preceded by an article in any given sentence, with only a few exceptions. In French, however, articles are even more common, as they are also used before many proper nouns (such as the names of countries), abstract nouns and general nouns in their plural form. Consider, for instance, the following examples of each, and their French translations:

Japan is famous for its cherry blossoms | Le Japon est célèbre pour ses cerisiers en fleurs

I don’t follow politics very closely | Je ne suis pas la politique de très près

Tortoises live for a very long time | Les tortues vivent très longtemps

In each of these sentences, the English version does not use an article, whereas the French version does. In general, a noun will only be used without the help of an article if it is someone’s name, or if another determiner precedes it, such as a possessive determiner (mon, ton, son, etc.) or a demonstrative adjective (ce, cette). Indeed, ‘le’ and ‘un’ are the first and third most common words in the French language, respectively - so it’s vital that you get familiar with them.

Definite articles vs indefinite articles

A definite article is used when referring to a specific noun, while an indefinite article is used to refer to a non-specific noun. In English we use the words ‘the’ and ‘a’ respectively, as in the following sentences:

'The yellow umbrella is cheaper'

'I saw a good film at the weekend'

Now see how they are translated into French:

'Le parapluie jaune est moins cher'

'J'ai vu un bon film ce week-end'

Le is definite, as it refers to a particular thing, while un is indefinite. Note that in both languages, the article must precede the adjective of the noun as well as the noun it is describing.

It’s also important to note that non-specific nouns generally become specific once you’ve already referred to them.

'I saw a film at the weekend. The film was good' | 'J'ai vu un film ce week-end. Le film était bon'

Let’s look at a few more examples:

'I need a new jacket. The jacket I usually wear is too old' | 'J'ai besoin d'une nouvelle veste. La veste que je porte habituellement est trop vieille'

'The marble cake is a really good cake' | 'Le marbré est un très bon gâteau'

Masculine vs Feminine articles

Now, you’ve probably noticed that both ‘le’ and ‘un’ are sometimes spelt differently. The reason behind this is that the article changes depending on the gender of the noun it describes. The definite article also changes depending on whether the noun - or nouns - are singular or plural.

masculine singular un le
feminine singular une la
masculine plural --- les
feminine plural --- les

Let's see some examples:

'Where did I put the keys?' | 'Où ai-je mis les clés ?'

'For the upcoming party, I want a DJ and a disco ball' | 'Pour la soirée à venir, je veux un DJ et une boule disco'

When the noun or adjective that follows the singular definite article begins with a vowel or 'h', we use a contraction, for instance:

le homme becomes l'homme

la actrice becomes l'actrice

Another thing to note is that the indefinite article is not used for plural nouns (unlike in some languages, such as Portuguese). Whereas in English we would drop the article altogether, in French we tend to substitute the plural form of the definite article, as in the following example:

'Lemons are too sour for me' | 'Les citrons sont trop acides pour moi'

Possessive adjectives + articles

When preceded by the possessive ‘de’, the indefinite article and the plural of the definite article morph with the possessive, as in the following:

masculine singular d'un de le
feminine singular d'une de la
masculine plural --- des
feminine plural --- des

Let's see some examples:

'No, I haven't read The Lord of the Rings' | 'Non, je n'ai pas lu Le Seigneur des Anneaux'

'Please can i have some chocolates?' | 'S'il vous plaît, puis-je avoir des chocolats?'

(Note that this is another example of the article being used in French where it isn’t in English, as a translation for the word 'some'.)

Prepositions + articles

When preceded by the preposition ‘à’, the masculine singular definite article and both plural definite articles morph with the preposition, as in the following:

masculine singular à un au
feminine singular à une à la
masculine plural --- aux
feminine plural --- aux

Let's see some examples:

'Go to the top' | 'Aller au sommet'

But if the article is indefinite or feminine, the words remain distinct:

'My favourite scene is at the end of the story' | 'Ma scène préférée est à la fin de l'histoire'

Note however that 'à le' does not get contracted to 'au' when the noun begins with an 'h' or 'a vowel'. Rather than 'à' morphing with the article, the article morphs with the noun, for example:

à le acteur becomes à l'acteur (not au acteur)

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