French Language Blog

Problematic Prepositions: De (Part Trois) Posted by on May 8, 2017 in Grammar

Last week on the blog, we went over the rules regarding de when used as an expression of quantity. This is typically very confusing for French learners, as it can be difficult to pick out what exactly an expression of quantity is. We’ll delve a bit more into the grammatical nitty-gritty of what constitutes an expression of quantity and what does not in this post.


Why is it important to determine if de should be used as part of an expression of quantity? Because this will determine whether or not de changes based on the gender of the noun that follows it (du, de la, de l’a) or not (the one exception to this case is if de comes before a noun that begins with a vowel, then it becomes d’). Instead of memorizing a list of expressions of quantity (although it is good to know what the common expressions are!), you can think of it instead in terms of specified and unspecified nouns.

To clarify: If a noun is specified it will include further details, perhaps using adjectives or prepositional phrases that specify or qualify the noun. If a noun is unspecified, however, there will be no further information about that noun. If the noun that comes after de is specified, that means that de is NOT part of an expression of quantity and that the de can change based on the gender of the noun. If, however, the noun that comes after de is unspecified, it is typically part of an expression of quantity and thus will not change based on the gender of the noun.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Je veux une tasse de thé. (I want a cup of tea.)

Here, thé (tea) is the noun that follows de. Is it specified or unspecified? Ask yourself: Do you know anything further about the tea? If not, then it is an unspecified noun. This means that the de, as you see, does not change to reflect the gender of the noun (thé).

J’ai bu moins de thé que toi! (I drank less tea than you!)

If you didn’t recognize this as part of an expression of quantity (moins de), you would ask yourself again: Is the noun (thé) a specified or unspecified noun? Although there is more information than in the previous example (a comparison), it does not further describe the tea itself. Thus, the noun remains unspecified. Once again, you’ll notice that de does not change based on the gender of the noun.

Je veux une tasse du thé que tu as acheté chez La Théière. (I want a cup of the tea that you bought at La Théière.)

Once again the noun we are examining is tea (thé). But, here, we find out more about the tea. It’s not just any tea, but tea that was bought at a salon de thé called La Théière). This additional information means that the noun becomes specified. Because de is used before a specified noun, it changes based on the gender of the noun. Because the French word for tea is masculine, de becomes du. Et voilà!

Was this a more helpful way of determining whether or not de should change based on the gender of the noun it precedes? If you still find yourself confused about this tricky preposition, leave a comment below. 

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!