Understanding French Articles and How They Indicate Gender and Number

Articles are small words that you use only with nouns. They both present a noun and indicate the gender and number of a noun. French has definite, indefinite, and partitive articles. The following sections describe these three types of articles and identifies when and how you should use them in your French writing and speech.

Grasping the definite articles

Definite articles indicate that the noun they're presenting is specific. In English, the definite article is the. French has three different definite articles, which tell you that the noun is masculine, feminine, or plural. If the noun is singular, the article is le (for masculine nouns) or la (for feminine nouns). If the noun is plural, the article is les no matter what gender the noun is.

If a singular noun begins with a vowel or mute h, the definite article le or la contracts to l', as in l'ami (the friend) and l'homme (the man).

The French definite article is much more common than its English counterpart. In addition to referring to a specific noun, as in le livre que j'ai acheté (the book I bought), you use the French definite article to talk about the general sense of a noun, as in J'aime le chocolat (I like chocolate).

Defining the indefinite articles

Indefinite articles refer to an unspecific noun. The English indefinite articles are a and an. French has three indefinite articles — un (for masculine nouns), une (for feminine nouns), and des (for masculine or feminine plural nouns). Which one you use depends on the noun's gender and number.

You use the indefinite article in basically the same way in French and English — to refer to an unspecific noun, as in J'ai acheté une voiture (I bought a car) or Je veux voir un film (I want to see a movie). Note that un and une can also mean one: J'ai un frère (I have one brother).

Des is the plural indefinite article, which you use for two or more masculine and/or feminine nouns: J'ai des idées (I have some ideas). When you make a sentence with an indefinite article negative, the article changes to de, meaning (not) any.

  • J'ai des questions. (I have some questions.)
  • Je n'ai pas de questions. (I don't have any questions.)

Looking at some partitive articles

Partitive articles are used with things that you take only part of. They don't exist in English, so the best translation is the word some. There are, once again, three partitive articles, depending on whether the noun is masculine (du), feminine (de la), or plural (des).

You use the partitive article with food, drink, and other uncountable things that you take or use only a part of, like air and money, as well as abstract things, such as intelligence and patience. If you do eat or use all of something, and if it is countable, then you need the definite or indefinite article. Compare the following:

  • Je veux du gâteau. (I want some cake — just a piece or two.)
  • Je veux le gâteau. (I want the cake — the whole one.)
  • Je veux un gâteau. (I want a cake — for my birthday party.)

When a singular noun begins with a vowel or mute h, the partitive article du or de la contracts to de l', as in de l'eau (some water) and de l'hélium (some helium).

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