How To Understand And Use French Prepositions Properly

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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How To Understand And Use French Prepositions Properly

Prepositions in French can be challenging for English speakers.

Not only do you have a range of prepositions to memorise if you’re studying French, but they can differ in terms of how they’re used.

If you speak English at a native level and you’re studying a French course, you’ll notice that there are many inconsistencies in direct translations when it comes to French prepositions.

To put it another way, and to give you an example, you probably won’t find a precise translation in English for the French preposition chez, which we’ll explore later in this post.

So, how can you become more confident when using French prepositions in everyday conversations?

This guide should clear it up for you. Continue to the end for examples of top French prepositions.

Prepositions: what are they?

Before we explore our French prepositions, let’s begin at the very beginning.

What is a preposition? What are they used for?

A preposition is a word that indicates the positioning of a person or an object in relation to something else, such as a place or a particular time.

Just to give you an example to clarify which group of words I’m talking about, in English, some prepositions you might be familiar with include:

  • In
  • On
  • Under
  • In front of
  • Behind
  • Next to
  • Between

Prepositions can be the smallest of words and phrases.

Take ‘in’ for example. It’s only two letters, but when it comes to using the French equivalent in similar contexts, you might be left scratching your head in confusion.

Instead of saying ‘I’m in my car’, for instance, in French you would say:

Je suis dans ma voiture.

Common errors with French prepositions

There are a few common errors you should be aware of when studying French prepositions.

The first of these is using an unnecessary prepositional verb in French due to direct translations. And one classic example of this would be ‘to ask for’.

In French, the little three letter word ‘for’ is redundant in this case. The verb you need is demander, which captures the meaning of the entire phrase ‘to ask for’.

Then, there are the errors that relate to using the wrong preposition. Say you wanted to tell someone that you’ve got on the tube or metro. You might think that the English preposition ‘on’ would translate have a similar translation — like en — in French.

But it’s slightly different because in French we would say:

Je suis dans le métro.

I'm in the metro.

And, finally, there’s the issue of forgetting to use a preposition altogether when one is actually required. This error is similarly committed by Spanish learners who are native English speakers.

Here’s a comparison that illustrates the issue of forgetting French prepositions.

If you had plans to see a family member, you might say ‘I’m going to visit my cousin’ in English. The French translation for this is slightly different, though.

Take a look:

Je vais rendre visite à ma cousine.

So, what’s the difference? Did you spot it?

The little preposition à is required in this case in the French version — so don’t forget it and keep reading for more information on this French preposition!

What are the most commonly used French prepositions?

Here is a list of the most commonly used French prepositions. Learning them by heart is the key to sounding like a native, so take a look!

Prepositions related to place in French

The following prepositions are used when describing someone or something’s position in a place.

Le FrancaisEnglish
EntreBetween
SousUnder
ChezAt the place of
ÀAt
DansIn
DerrièreBehind
SurOn

Prepositions for giving directions in French

Need to guide a friend or give them directions to help them reach a certain destination?

These prepositions will help you with that.

Le FrancaisEnglish
À droiteTo the right
À gaucheTo the left
Au coin deAt the corner of
En arrièreBackwards
Tout droitStraight on

Prepositions related to time in French

Locating or placing someone in a particular time requires the following French prepositions.

Which are you familiar with and which do you need to practice?

Le FrancaisEnglish
AprèsAfter
PourFor
AvantBefore
PendantFor
DespuisSince
VersAround

One quick note about two of these French prepositions is that both pour and pendant translate to English as ‘for’, but they are used in different contexts.

Whereas pour should be used to in relation to how long an event will last, and is used specifically for future events, pendant is used for any time — whether that’s in the present or the past.

Pouvez-vous finir ça pour mercredi la semaine prochaine?

Can you complete this for Wednesday next week?

J’ai vécu en France pendant sept ans.

I lived in France for seven years.

When is the French preposition dans used?

The commonly used French preposition dans can have various meanings.

As well as ‘in’, dans can mean ‘on’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘under’ and ‘during’.

Here are some examples of dans being used for each of these meanings.

Je suis dans le bus.

I'm on the bus.

Il a pris un cigare dans la boîte.

He took a cigar from the box.

Je vais dans la boutique.

I'm going into the shop.

Dans ces circonstances, je resterai en Angleterre.

Under these circumstances, I will stay in England.

When to use the French preposition chez

In French, the preposition chez means ‘at the house of’ and we sometimes use it to describe where we are going.

A translator might give you a different meaning — which is ‘in’, but this translation doesn’t always accurately match the French definition.

Here are a couple of examples of chez being used:

Il va chez le supermarché.

He's going to the supermarket.

Il vivait chez ses beaux-parents.

He lived at the house of his in-laws.

Using the French prepositions à and de when describing movement in French

Finally, you’ll need to use the French prepositions à and de frequently when it comes to movement.

To use them, it’s useful to keep in mind that these prepositions should always complement the nouns that comes after them. This means if the noun is plural, masculine, feminine or starts with a vowel, you will need to change the form of the preposition.

If the noun is masculine, use au. If the noun is feminine, use à la. If the noun is plural, you’ll need to use aux. And if the noun begins with a vowel — or an h that is not pronounced, use à l’.

Here are some examples:

Je vais au restaurant.

I'm going to the restaurant.

Je vais à la pharmacie.

I'm going to the pharmacy.

Je vais aux îles canaries en hiver.

I'm going to the Canary Islands in winter.

Je vais à l’hôtel pour dormir.

I'm going to the hotel to sleep.

The preposition de is used in a similar way.

For masculine nouns, use du. For feminine nouns, use de la. For plural nouns, you’ll need to use des. And for nouns that begin with a vowel or a silent h, use de l’.

Here’s how to use the preposition de:

Je revenais du restaurant.

I was coming back from the restaurant.

Je revenais de la pharmacie.

I was coming back from the pharmacy.

Je revenais des îles Canaries en hiver.

I was coming back from the Canary Islands in winter.

Je revenais de l’hôtel après le déjeuner.

I was coming back from the hotel after lunch.

Don’t forget to practice your French prepositions!

If you’re a French beginner, it’s important to practice these prepositions until you know them very well.

You won’t get far in most conversations without them.

In addition to frequent usage, I recommend using a tool like Memrise to memorize lists of prepositions. There are plenty of decks on there to study.

Try using them in everyday conversations (see italki for this) to keep practicing.

Got any other tips for mastering French prepositions?

Share them below!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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