French Language Blog

French Grammar – Definite Articles Posted by on Nov 27, 2009 in Grammar

L’argent ne fait pas le bonheur. (Money doesn’t bring happiness) I came across this saying today and it led me to thinking about how articles and more specifically in this case, definite articles, can be tricky as they are not always used in the same ways in French and English.  Just by comparing the French saying, you can see how definite articles are used in the French version, but not in the English version.  Why, you may ask.  Well, whereas in English the definite article (the) is used when referring to a specific person, place or thing and no article is used with plural or non-count nouns when referring to things in general, one of the uses for French definite articles is when the noun is used in general in this same way.  So, let’s take a look.

First of all the three forms of definite articles in French are:
Masculine singular – le
Feminine singular – la
Masculine and feminine plural – les

There are also two other issues to keep in mind as far as formation:
1. You use l’ before a vowel or silent h (l’arbre, l’homme, l’université, l’heure)
2. You contract the article with the prepositions à and de:
à + le = au (à le cinéma au cinéma)
à + les = aux (à les États-Unis
aux États-Unis)
de + le = du (de le salon
du salon)
de + les = des (de les tables
des tables)

Now, you use the definite article in French in the following situations:
1. When the noun designates a person, place, or thing that is well-known or unique:
Le soleil (the sun); la terre (the Earth); la tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower)

2. When the noun refers to something in general:
l’argent (money); le bonheur (happiness); la musique (music); les chiens (dogs)

3. When the noun is understood to be known due to a relative subordinate clause, a possessive phrase or the context:
La voiture que je voulais acheter a été vendue. The car I wanted to buy has been sold.  (relative subordinate clause)
Le chat de ma sœur s’est échappé. My sister’s cat ran away. (possessive phrase)
Nous sommes allés à l’anniversaire d’un ami. Le gâteau était délicieux. We went to a friend’s birthday party.  The cake was delicious.  (context)

You use a definite article before:
place names (l’Europe, l’Ouest, la mer Méditerranée, le Nil, les Alpes, etc.)
**be careful: don’t put an article before Cuba, Israël, Madagascar, Chypre and a few other countries.
peoples and languages (les Italiens, l’italien, la Chine, le chinois, etc.)
seasons, the date and holidays (l’hiver, le 14 juillet, la fête nationale française)
**be careful: don’t use an article with Noël or Pâques or before months and if you use one before a day of the week like lundi, for example, it would mean every Monday)
titles (le Président, le Premier ministre, le professeur Dupont, etc.)
last names when referring to the family (les Dupont, les Larverne, les Agassi, etc.)
colors (le vert, le blanc, le rouge, etc.)
superlatives (le plus beau, la plus belle, etc.)
– to express measurements (10 euros le kilo, 5 euros le litre, 100 km à l’heure, etc.)

Also in French, you use definite articles before body parts instead of the possessive adjective when the relationship between the body part and the “owner” is obvious:
Cette fille a les cheveux blonds et les yeux bleus. (This girl has blonde hair and blue eyes.)
J’ai mal à la tête. (My head hurts.)
On conduit avec les mains sur le volant. (You drive with your hands on the steering wheel.)

Definite articles are also used when the possessive relationship is indicated with a reflexive verb:
Lave-toi les mains! (Wash your hands!)
Je me suis coupé les doigts! (I cut my fingers!)

And finally, you use definite articles when the “owner” is indicated by an indirect pronoun:
Elle m‘a pris le sac à main. (She took my purse.)
Nous avons lui fait les bagages. (We packed her bags.)

Qu’est-ce qui fait le bonheur pour vous?  Partagez vos idées avec nous dans une commentaire.

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  1. Malcolm:

    Wow! This really spells it out. The test would be in writing it. – or even remembering it.
    Elle m’a pris le sac a main. I would have to work that out slowly. Is this ‘she took the purse of mine’?

  2. Andi:

    I am trying to put the words together for the version of Douce nuit i have so my class can sing along – i have the first …..douce nuit sainte nuit verse and 3rd verse…… C’est vers nous qu’il accourt
    En un don sans retour.
    De ce monde ignorant de l’amour
    Où commence aujourd’hui son séjour,
    Qu’il soit roi pour toujours,
    Qu’il soit roi pour toujours
    but can anyone help with the 2nd it starts with douz enfant douz anno qui est ……. qui est beau entende ……….thanks

  3. Bremen:

    This info. is very useful, thank you very much for all this material. I am very excited to continue improving my french (and german)!! Bremen