Gimme Some of That: Using du, de la, de l’, and des in French

The Shapeshifter de

When you study French, you learn very early a few things about the preposition de.

  • It’s usually translated as of: le livre de Jeanne (the book of Jeanne/Jeanne’s book)
  • It’s also translated as from: je suis de Nantes (I’m from Nantes) tu es d’où ? (where are you from?)
  • It’s also translated as some: je veux du café (I want some coffee.)
  • It’s also often just not translated at all: terrain de foot (soccer field)

To express partial quantities of something, you use the partitive. In English, that’s some, and in French it’s du (de + le), de l’, de la, or des (de + les).

  • Je voudrais du café. I’d like some coffee.
  • Tu veux de l’eau ? Do you want some water?
  • Elle sort avec des amis. She’s going out with some friends.
The Modesty of French Nouns

As you learn more French, you start to see de in places where English uses nothing, kind of like soccer field (terrain de foot), but seemingly everywhere. This will make sense if you think of English nouns as nudists, but French nouns as needing to be clothed at all times. Here are some examples of naked nouns in English that are wearing de in French.

  • Elle boit du vin avec ses amis. (She’s drinking wine with her friends.)
  • Je vais prendre de l’eau gazeuse. (I’m going to have sparkling water.)
  • Voulez-vous de la sauce piquante ? (Do you want spicy sauce?)
  • Y a-t-il de l’ail dans ce plat ? (Is there garlic in this dish?)
  • Nous passons des vacances en France. (We’re spending vacation in France.)

Notice that you could use some in English: She’s drinking some wine with her friends, I’m going to have some sparkling water, etc. But it’s optional. In French, du, de la, de l’, and des are not optional. No naked nouns in French.

Other Articles of Clothing

French has a more varied wardrobe with which to clothe its nouns. (It’s French, after all.) You can use a possessive like my (mon, ma, mes) or a demonstrative this (ce, cette, ces) or a definitive article the (le, la, les).

  • Je veux mon café. (I want my coffee.)
  • Je veux ce café ici. (I want this coffee here.)
  • Je veux le café là-bas. (I want the coffee over there.)

The thing that usually confuses French learners is not that you can but that you must. For example, in another blog post I wrote about using le, l’, la, les with verbs of liking. In French you like the something. This is similar.

Think of it this way. In French, if you’re talking about all of a category (I like chocolate) you use the definite article (j’aime le chocolat.) But if you’re talking about some of that category (I’m eating chocolate, not all of the chocolate in the universe, but some small portion of it) you need to use some (je mange du chocolat.)

Check back here for more on how to use de. Or if you’d like to learn French with me, check out the Language Garage French courses.

Image: Pixabay

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