Definite and indefinite articles in French are necessary to learn early on, so it’s critical that you understand how they work.
You would have encountered them in just about any French course, but you may still be wondering what a definite and indefinite article in French is.
This guide will explain them and when you should use them.
Let’s make a start.
What are definite and indefinite articles?
A definite article is a short word that speakers use to talk about specific or defined nouns or objects.
The definite article in English is “the”.
An indefinite article is used to talk about general or undefined nouns or objects.
The indefinite articles in English are “a” and “an”.
With this in mind, let’s focus on the definite and indefinite articles in French and when to use them.
What are the different definite articles in French?
In French, we have four definite articles. Yes, that’s three more than we have in English!
Why do we have four definite articles in French?
It’s because nouns can be masculine, like le livre, or feminine, like la maison.
Nouns can also be singular or plural, and the definite articles correspond to each form.
Here are the four definite articles in French:
Use le when referring to a masculine, singular noun in French.
Use la when referring to a feminine, singular noun in French.
Reserve les for plural nouns and l’ for nouns that begin with a vowel.
Keep in mind that when you use definite articles in French when negating a sentence, they do not change.
When should you use a definite article in French?
Use definite articles in French in the following situations:
- When you’re describing one specific thing out of many
- To indicate that the noun or object belongs to someone
- When you’re talking about a general concept (keep reading for more on this)
- When you use certain verbs
Let’s now look at each of these rules in more detail.
Using definite articles when you’re describing one thing out of many
This rule is the equivalent of using “the” in English when you want to specify that you’re talking about one object, person, or noun out of many.
Here are some usage examples:
L’ancien ordinateur ne fonctionne pas.
Je cherche la femme qui a les cheveux rouges.
In the first example, the speaker specifies that out of many computers, this one doesn’t work.
In the second, the speaker specifies that out of many women, they are specifically looking for the one who has red hair.
Using definite articles to indicate that the noun or object belongs to someone
When explaining that an object belongs to someone in French, you must use a definite article.
With this rule, you will see that you use an inverted syntax compared to the English language.
Whereas English speakers would say, “this is my partner’s computer”, French native speakers would say:
C’est l’ordinateur de mon partenaire.
In this example, we use the definite article l’ to indicate which object belongs to someone.
And since the object begins with a vowel, we use an apostrophe in front of the l.
Using definite articles when speaking about a general concept
Even though you don’t use a definite article to talk about general concepts in English, you must use one in French.
Let’s unpack this with more detail and an example.
If you wanted to say that marketing is a good strategy in general, you should use the definite article le.
You would say:
Le marketing est une bonne stratégie
This phrase differs from the English sentence “marketing is a good strategy”, which doesn’t feature a definite article.
Or if you wanted to describe a characteristic of cats in a general sense, you should also use the plural definite article les.
Les chats sont très intelligents.
Again, note how this sentence is different from the English equivalent, “cats are very intelligent”, which doesn’t require a definite article.
Using definite articles in French to talk about days of the week in general
When you’re talking about an action that you do every week on the same day, use definite articles in French before the day.
This rule is different from the English language concept or rule that states you don’t use an article before the day of the week you’re talking about.
To see how to use definite articles in French for the days of the week, take a look at the usage examples below:
L’homme va à l’église le dimanche.
La femme rentre chez elle tous les jours.
If you’re not talking about a habit and are referring to an action in the present tense, you don’t need to use an article:
Il part lundi.
Elle prononce son discours lundi.
This rule is something to watch out for. Just remember that for habits, you must use a definite article before the day of the week, and for actions in the present tense, you don’t.
What are the different indefinite articles in French?
Unlike the Spanish language (which features four indefinite articles), there are three main indefinite articles in French.
The indefinite articles in French include:
Use un when you’re referring to a masculine, singular noun in French, and use une when you’re referring to a feminine, singular noun in French.
If you’re referring to a plural noun, use des.
But there are a few additional rules to keep in mind.
What are the rules for using indefinite articles in French?
When using indefinite articles in French, remember that you should use them with countable nouns.
Also, keep in mind two additional rules: you place them in front of a noun, and they should complement the gender and number of the noun.
When should you use indefinite articles in French?
Other situations when you must use an indefinite article in French include:
- When you need to mention many countable objects
- When you are talking about an unspecified number of objects
- When you use relative clauses
Let’s look at each of these points in more detail.
Using indefinite articles to mention many countable objects
Use indefinite articles (un, une, des) to describe countable objects.
Countable objects are objects that you can count, unlike water or milk.
Whenever you mention many countable objects in French and want to say “some,” use an indefinite article.
Je vois des chiens.
Il voit des maisons.
Using indefinite articles in French for unspecified objects
If you want to talk about an unspecific object in French, you can use an indefinite article for this.
This rule is the opposite of the definite article rule, which indicates that you should use definite articles for specific objects.
Here’s an example of how to use indefinite articles in French for an unspecified object:
Je vois un chat.
In this example, the speaker can see a cat, but they haven’t specified which cat they can see, so they use the indefinite article un.
The person listening to this speaker may ask, “Which cat can you see?” to clarify since the speaker hasn’t specified.
J’ai un livre.
In this example, the speaker has a book but hasn’t specified which book they have, so they use the indefinite article un.
Using indefinite articles in French when using relative clauses
If you are using relative clauses, and the first clause contains an unspecified noun, use an indefinite article in the first clause.
Je veux une maison pas trop grande.
In this example, the first clause contains an unspecified noun - une maison - so the speaker uses the indefinite article une.
J’ai vu un sac qui contenait de nombreux vêtements.
In this example, the first clause contains an unspecified noun - un sac - so the speaker uses the indefinite article un.
Revise definite and indefinite articles in French to become an expert
Knowing when to use a definite article or an indefinite article in French is easy - the tricky part is remembering genders.
However, now you’ve got the key facts on definite and indefinite articles in French and how to use them, keep practicing and revising the rules.
Always memorize French vocabulary with the article.
That way you’ll be memorizing the word + its gender.
Which tips do you have for learning definite and indefinite articles in French?
Add your advice to the comments section below!