If you've already started learning French, you're probably aware of some of the “big” areas of grammar that you need to master, things like tenses, verb conjugations and gender.
However, there are some other grammatical points that might slip under the radar because you use them all the time without ever really noticing they’re there.
One of these is the French partitive article, something that is so basic and common that you probably use it every time you speak French without giving it a second thought.
However, to make sure you always use it correctly, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it is and how it works. So here’s my guide to everything you need to know about this simple but important part of French grammar.
By the way, if you're getting started with French and want to progress to a conversational level fast, then check out French Uncovered, my story-based course for beginners who want to speak French fast without getting bogged down in grammar.
What’s An Article?
Let’s start with the basics – what’s an article?
“Article” is the technical name for the words “the” and “a” (or “an”) in English.
- I walked the dog
- I bought a plant
More specifically, “the” is known as the “definite article” because it refers to a specific example of that noun while “a” is known is the “indefinite article” because it refers to a non-specific example.
Here, “the dog” refers to one specific dog – when I say “I walked the dog”, we know exactly which dog I am talking about – my dog, the friendly Dalmatian I own called Spot (I don’t actually have a Dalmatian called Spot…).
“A plant”, on the other hand, doesn’t refer to a specific plant. When I say “I bought a plant”, it just means I bought an undetermined plant; which specific plant I bought is not important information in this sentence.
Definite And Indefinite Articles In French
French has more articles than English because French has two genders. It has different versions of the definite and indefinite articles for both masculine and feminine. And it also has another version for plurals.
- j’ai promené le chien (I walked the dog)
- j’ai nourri la chèvre (I fed the (female) goat)
- elle a trouvé un portefeuille (she found a wallet)
- j’ai acheté une plante (I bought a plant)
- j’ai vu les enfants (I saw the children)
What Is The Partitive Article In French?
French also has another type of article that doesn’t exist in English as such. It is often found where English would use “some” (or “any” in negative sentences and questions), and it is used to describe a part, an amount or a quantity of something.
Just like definite and indefinite articles, there are different versions for masculine, feminine and plural, and they are: du, de l’, de la and des.
Du is used before masculine nouns, de la is used before feminine nouns and des is used with plural nouns of either gender. The other one, de l’, is used with nouns of either gender that begin with a vowel or unaspirated ‘h’.
Here are some examples:
- je veux boire du lait (I want to drink some milk)
- je veux boire de la bière (I want to drink some beer)
- il veut boire de l’eau (he wants to drink some water)
- j’ai des amis en France (I have some friends in France)
Choosing Between The Definite Article & The Partitive Article
As you can see from the examples above, when we want to translate “some”, using a partitive article is easy. All you need to do is choose the correct form according to whether the noun is masculine, feminine or plural.
However, sometimes English uses a noun alone – without an article or “some” – but French requires an article to make the sentence correct. And in these cases, sometimes it can be a little difficult deciding whether to use a definite article or a partitive article.
Look at these examples:
- I’ll have coffee
- I like coffee
Since English doesn’t use an article or “some” before the noun, at first glance, it might not be immediately obvious which version to choose in French.
However, if you think about it, in the first one, you are talking about a quantity of coffee. In a way, “some” is implied, so you need to use the partitive article in French.
In the second one, on the other hand, you are making a generalisation. You are making a statement about coffee in general, about all coffee, always – and in this case, you need to use the definite article:
- je prendrai du café (I’ll have coffee/I’ll have some coffee)
- je n’aime pas le café (I don’t like coffee)
Here’s another example:
- je prendrai du gâteau (I’ll have some cake)
- je n’aime pas les gâteaux (I don’t like cakes)
In the first example, you are saying you want some cake – a piece of cake – so you use the partitive article, but in the second, you are making a statement about cakes in general, so you use the definite article.
If you are talking about a quantity or a part of something, you need to use the partitive article. However, if you are making a generalisation – talking about all coffee or all cakes, for example – you should use the definite article.
French Partitive Articles In Negative Sentences
With negative sentences, things work slightly differently. Instead of using du, de l’, de la or des, you simply use de (or d’ before a vowels or unaspirated ‘h’). This is often used when English uses “any”. Here are some examples:
- ils n’ont pas d’amis en France (They don’t have (any) friends in France)
- je ne prendrai pas de café (I won’t have (any) coffee)
- je ne veux pas boire de bière (I don’t want to drink (any) beer)
The same is also true for other negative forms, for example ne…plus, ne…jamais etc. (but not ne…que) – for example:
- je ne bois plus de vin (I don’t drink wine anymore)
- je ne mange jamais de frites (I never eat chips (“fries” for any American readers!))
- je n’ai qu’un jour à attendre (I just have one day to wait)
The same form is also used in negative sentences – rather than un or une – when English would use “a”:
- je n’ai pas vu de sanglier (I didn’t see a wild boar)
- je n’ai pas entendu de voix (I didn’t hear a voice)
Exceptions To The Rule
With negative sentences, there are three specific exceptions to this rule when you shouldn’t use de. You should just try to remember these.
The first is when you make a contrasting statement, like this:
- je n’ai pas vu des chiens mais j’ai vu des chats (I didn’t see any dogs but I saw some cats)
The second exception is in negative sentences with the verb être, like this:
- ce n’est pas un lion (it isn’t a lion)
The final exception is when the meaning is “not one at all” or “not a single one”, for example:
- je n’ai pas vu une personne (I didn’t see a (single) person)
In this last example, in spoken French, the stress of the sentence would fall strongly on une to reinforce the point. You could also add words like même or seul to further emphasise this meaning, like this:
- je n’ai même pas vu une seule personne (I didn’t even see a single person)
French Partitive Articles With Abstract Nouns
Before, we saw that partitive articles are used in French to express a part, quantity or amount of a noun. But they are also used when referring to abstract nouns, things like beauty, intelligence or hate.
- il y a de la haine dans son cœur (there is hate in his heart)
- ce n’est pas de la faim, c’est de la gourmandise ! (it’s not hunger, it’s self-indulgence!)
However, if it follows an expression with de, like beaucoup de (lots of) or tellement de (so much), the partitive article is dropped, like this:
- il y a beaucoup de haine dans son cœur (there is a lot of hate in his heart)
- il y a tellement de beauté dans le monde (there is so much beauty in the world)
(The de in these expressions is the de that goes with beaucoup and tellement – it is not the de from the partitive article.)
French Partitive Articles With Faire (To Do)
Partitive articles are also used in many expressions with faire (to do), usually talking about activities. For example:
- j’aime faire de l’equitation (I like horse riding (“I like doing horse riding”))
- je veux faire du yoga (I want to do (some) yoga)
The same rules as before also apply when using negative sentences, like this:
- je n’aime pas faire de sport (I don’t like doing sport)
Grammar That’s Better Practised Than Learned
French partitive articles are a perfect example of the kind of grammatical point that is better learned through practice rather than by memorising rules. As long as you are aware of the basic principles, by using it, it will become second nature.
And you won’t need to think about choosing the correct form because you will do so instinctively. And in the end, that’s your ultimate goal when trying to master any foreign language.
So, it's time to immerse yourself in French from home, whether that's by listening to podcasts in French or reading French books. As you read and listen, try to spot the French partitive articles. You'll get used to them and be using them in your own French in no time!