Definite, Indefinite and partitive : all you need to Know about French articles

One of the most difficult part for French learners is using articles in French. When to use them? Which one to use? A feminine or male article? These are the kind of questions that are often asked and that keep coming when dealing with French learners.

In this post, I’ll explain the different types of articles used in French, and when to use them with examples. At the end, you’ll find some exercises to practice what you would have learnt.

Let’s start by defining an article.

An article is a word placed before a noun and that gives an indication about its gender and number. There are basically 3 types of articles in French : the definite article, the indefinite article and the partitive article.

1. The definite article

Unlike in English, where the is the only article used as a definite article, in French there are different ways of saying the:

  • Le is used in front of masculine words

  • La is for feminine words

  • Les is for plural words

  • L’ is for words starting with a vowel or a silent h.

2. The indefinite article

In French we use the indefinite articles un/une to express a/an, and des for some.

  • Un is used for masculine words

  • Une is for feminine words

  • Des for plural words.

🛑 In front of an adjective placed before the noun, des becomes de. Example : Ce sont de belles fleurs. => These are beautiful flowers.

3. The difference between the definite and the indefinite article

The definite article is used

  • for a specific noun. Example : la maison de Julie. => Julie’s house.

  • for the general meaning of a noun. Example : la joie, la tristesse. => Joy, Sadness. You will notice that in English Joy and Sadness are said without using the article “The”. This makes it sometimes difficult for English speaking learners who tend to skip the article when speaking in French.

  • for somebody or something already mentioned previously. Example : C’est la femme dont je t’ai parlé. => It’s the lady i told you about.

  • after the verbs aimer, adorer, détester, préférer. We generally use the definite articles. Example : J’aime la danse => I like dancing.

The indefinite article is used for

  • an unspecified thing or person. Example : C’est une chaise. => This is a chair.

  • referring to one thing. Example : Nous avons une voiture. => We have one car.

Let’s take the following example in order to highlight the difference between the definite and the indefinite article.

  • C’est une maison => This is a house. (It can be any house).

  • C’est la maison de Cédric. => This is Cedric’s house (This is a specific house belonging to Cedric).

4. Les articles partitifs

Another category of articles used in French are partitive articles.

They are used for an undetermined amount of something or for uncountable nouns. In general, there is no equivalent in English.

They are a combination of de + a definite article and there are four partitive articles :

  • Du (=de le) is used for masculine words

  • De la for feminine

  • De l’ for words starting with a vowel or a silent H

  • Des (de les) for plural words.

In general, we use them for talking about food, sports with the verb faire or music instruments with the verb jouer.

Examples :

Je mange du Poulet. => I am eating (some) chicken.

Je bois de l’eau => I am drinking water.

Je fais de la natation => I practice swimming.

Je joue du piano => I play piano.

5. French articles and contractions

If you want to speak French the right way, you must consider contracting articles when they are coupled with the prepositions à and de.

For example,

  • de + le become du

  • de + les become des

  • à + le become au

  • à + les become aux.

We never say⛔

Je bois de le thé

Je fais de les activités sportives

Je vais à le théâtre

Je pense à les enfants de ma soeur

But we say 👍

Je bois du thé

Je fais des activités sportives.

Je vais au théâtre.

Je pense aux enfants de ma sœur.

When not to use articles ?

6. Cases where no article is used in French

In some situations, articles are omitted in French.

For example

  • for the days of the week. Example : Samedi, nous ferons de la plongée.=> We’ll be diving on Saturday

  • for the months of the year. Example : Juillet est le mois le plus chaud. => July is the hotest month.

  • for names of cities/towns. Example : Je vais à Dakar. => I go to Dakar.

  • after negation. Example : Je n’ai pas de sœur => I don’t have a sister.

  • after some adverbs of quantity like beaucoup de, trop de, ... Example : Il y a beaucoup de personnes.

  • to say professions (unless it is specific). Example : Je suis professeur de francais. => I am a French teacher. But i can also say " Je suis le professeur de francais recommandé par Louis." => I am the French teacher recommended by Louis. In that case, i need to use the article as it is a specific situation.

I hope this will help you identify French articles and know when to use each of them depending on the context.

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