Un, Le, Ce, or De? French Articles Explained

french articles

As an English speaker learning French, articles are little words that can still give you big problems.

Since French nouns are masculine, feminine, and plural and have different articles to distinguish them, you will need to memorize at least two French articles for each English one.

To help you master French articles, we’ve broken them down into groups for you to study.

Basics

The first thing you need to learn are the English articles so that you can get a better understanding of what to use in French.

There are really only two English articles:

  • The – definite article
  • A/An – indefinite article

French articles (like most languages outside of Germanic ones) use other words as articles, and even allow you to omit articles from time to time. The following are considered French articles, although their function is largely the same as in English. Because you have to be aware of the gender of a noun, you have to treat these words the save as an article.

  • Some – Partitive article
  • This

Finally, there are special cases where you either need to use an article where you wouldn’t in English or you can omit an articles where you use an article in English.

  • Article additions and omissions

Definite Articles – Le, La, and Les (“The” in French)

Le, La, and Les

Probably the most widely used English article is the. You use it all the time without having to think about it because there is only one word in English.

It is called a definitive article because the word the denotes something that is specific, such as the chair, the stores, or the moment. Each of these refers to a specific thing or group of things.

There are four definite French articles that mean the, and those are the le articles. Each of the definite articles has a specific meaning.

  • Le – the masculine definite article. Whenever you see a word preceded by the French article le, that means that the noun is masculine, so if you want to switch to one of the other French articles, you would use the masculine version of the article.
  • La – the feminine definite article. All singular feminine nouns are preceded by la.
  • L’ – the definite article when the noun starts with a vowel.
  • Les – the plural definite article. All plural nouns, regardless of gender, receive the same article, les, to indicate that it is plural. If you have to add the plural indicator (such as s or es) you add les before it.

It is a little more difficult to understand the differences if you are a native English speaker because there is no equivalent. English does not have gendered nouns and the language does not differentiate between singular and plural when using the definite article the.

This is perhaps why it is most difficult to translate what you know into French with the right use, and it takes a lot of memorization. However, once you memorize the gender of a noun, you can more easily use all of the other French articles.

For example, you would say le fils for the son and la fille for the daughter. You would use the corresponding masculine or feminine article for a/an, of, or this.

The definite article l’ is similar to the English indefinite article an for the same reason. Saying a apple is difficult, but if you add the letter n it is easier.

Both of the French articles for the (la and le) end with vowel sounds that are difficult to flow into another vowel sound, such as enfant (child). The trick is to remember that the French language needs this for their definite articles, not their indefinite articles (the next section).

Plural nouns are a little easier because you do not consider gender. Whenever you have a plural noun, you always use les to indicate that you are using the plural form of the word.

There is more to know about plurals and les because the French use definite articles at times when English speakers and omit them other times where you would usually omit them. These are covered in the last section.

Indefinite Articles – Un, Une, and Des (“A” in French)

un une and des

Indefinite articles are used when you are referring to anything that you would consider generic, such as a chair or an apple. When you say you want an apple, you don’t have a specific one in mind. If you have washed an apple and left it on the counter, you would say you want the apple on the counter instead of one of the apples in the basket or refrigerator.

The French have an equivalent version for the indefinite article based on the nouns gender and if it is plural. This means there are three articles to learn.

  • Un – the masculine version of the English article a.
  • Une – the feminine version of the English article a.
  • Des – the plural version, although there is no English equivalent. This one is covered in more depth later in this section.

Using un and une is pretty much memorization of each noun gender. For example,

Once you learn a nouns gender, it is a simple matter of using un and une correctly.

If you read the information on des, you may have been trying to think of a correlation in English and found yourself confused. That’s because as a native English speaker, you do not think of using indefinite articles with plural nouns.

You know not to say a chairs or an apples. In English the indefinite article is always singular.

The French language has a different set of rules, and so have a corresponding article, which means that it really doesn’t have a direct translation (because English does not use this article with plurals).

Of all the French articles, this one is probably among the most difficult because you will naturally try to do a direct translation, which means you will exclude the required des.

Partitive Articles – De, De La, De L’, and Des (“Some” in French)

de de la and des

Another word that does not have an exact translation, it essentially functions like to the English word “some”. It is used whenever you talk about something that can be divided into smaller parts, such as bread or juice.

  • I would like some bread.
  • I would like a glass of juice.

The other use for these words is to specify that you do not know the quantity. For example, most of the time you would not each an entire pie, but you probably don’t know example how much. You would say you ate some pie. If you know the amount or are talking about something generic, you would use the or a/an just like English. Otherwise, you would select one of these four partitive articles.

  • De – the masculine article for some.
  • De la – the feminine article for some.
  • De l’ – the article for some when the noun starts with a vowel.
  • Des – the article for some for all plural nouns. Note that this is used when the number is not specified. If you have a specific number, you would say the quantity instead of some, such as I ate nine rolls instead of I ate some rolls.

Happily, they follow the same rules as the definite articles in terms of use, so once you know how to use the properly, you can more easily discuss portions.

Ce, Ceci, Cela, and Ça (“This” in French)

ce ceci cela and ca

Technically, this is a pronoun, but because it is so closely tied with the article you used in the previous sentence, it is best to discuss it at the same time. The English article this is a rough equivalent for these four pronouns.

Do not equate these four articles with gender though because their use is not gender based.

  • Ce – roughly English this or it. Primarily you would use this with verb être (to be) or an impersonal expression. When used, in a sentence, it becomes c’est.

C’est une bonne idée. – That’s a good idea.

C’est difficile à faire. – It’s hard to do.

As the examples show, you can think of it as a contraction with être, just like English uses the contractions that’s and it’s.

  • Ceci and cela – the articles are used with all other verbs for the same purpose. Ceci is used in place of this and cela is use in place of that. Whenever the verb être does not appear, you use one of these two articles. You use ceci to indicate something that is close by (this pie or this color). You use cela to indicate something that is further away (that house or that chair). Determine which of the two you would say, then you can do a straight translation for both of these.

Ceci peut nous aider. – This could help us.

Cela me fait plaisir. – That makes me happy

Je ne veux pas cela, je veux ceci. – I don’t want that, I want this.

  • Ça – the article used for informal this or that. Unlike the others, it is informal, so you would avoid it in any professional realm or public speaking.

Keep in mind that while these look like they would follow the same rules as the articles, the use is completely different. It is perhaps the most closely aligned with their English counterparts, it will take you some time to get accustomed to using them.

Omitting and Adding Articles

One of the biggest problems with articles is that most languages are not consistent about how they are used. There are a number of instances where you should add the article where you wouldn’t in English.

Most nouns require an article.

At first it will feel awkward to say  j’aime la glace because its direct translation is I like the ice cream. Similarly, Je n’ai pas mangé beaucoup de tarte mean  I ate a lot of pie.

The most difficult will be the use of articles before plural nouns, whether you are using the French articles that are equivalent to a/an or the. Where in English you would say Horses were running in the field, the direct translation from French is The horses were running in the field.

Then you have a few cases where you omit the article, and these largely require memorization.

  • Some set expressions do not include articles, and these you must memorize one by one.
  • Articles are not used when specifying what a person’s job is.
  • When you use de (indicating an unspecified number of something, such as many or lots of) you would not use an article afterward.

Articles are always difficult to learn in any other western language. It takes time, work, and a considerable amount of memorization, particularly from a non-gendered language like English.

It is best to take it slow and learn them one at a time. Because there is some overlap, once you are comfortable with one set of French articles, you will have an easier time getting accustomed to the others.

That is also why you need to really dedicate time to learning whether a noun is masculine or feminine.

Do you have any tips for using French articles correctly? Share them in the comments below!

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3 replies
  1. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    I think there might be a mistake with the translation in “Similarly, Je n’ai pas mangé beaucoup de tarte mean I ate a lot of pie.” Isnt it “I haven’t eaten a lot of pie”?

    Reply
  2. Alexa
    Alexa says:

    Quick question: isn’t the masc. article “du”, not “de”? But thanks for the information!

    Great article, thank you!

    Reply

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