Apprendre la Langue Française (Part 59): le préposition – de (les usages)


Source: french.about.com

De is a very important and versatile preposition with many different meanings and uses in French. As a preposition, it can express or indicate all of the following:

1. possession or belonging

le livre de Paul – Paul’s book
la bibliothèque de l’université – the university library

2. starting point or origin

partir de Nice – to leave from (out of) Nice
Je suis de Bruxelles. I’m from Brussels.

3. contents/description of something

une tasse de thé – cup of tea
un roman d’amour – love story (story of/about love)

4. defining feature

le marché de gros – wholesale market
une salle de classe – classroom
le jus d’orange – orange juice

5. cause

mourir de faim – to die of/from hunger
fatigué du voyage – tired from the trip

6. means/manner of doing something

écrire de la main gauche – to write with one’s left hand
répéter de mémoire – to recite from memory

When followed by the definite articles le and les, de contracts with them into a single word, for example:

de + le = du

du salon

de + les = des

des villes

But de does not contract with la or l’.

de + la = de la

de la femme

de + l’ = de l’

de l’homme

In addition, de does not contract with le and les when they are direct objects.

The French prepositions à and de cause constant problems but generally, à means to, at, or in while de means of or from.

À De
Location or destination 

Je vais à Rome. I’m going to Rome.

Je suis à la banque. I’m at the bank.

Starting point or origin 

partir de Nice – to leave from (out of) Nice

Je suis de Bruxelles. I’m from Brussels.

Distance in time or space: à is used in front of the distance 

Il habite à 10 mètres…He lives 10 meters…

C’est à 5 minutes…It’s 5 minutes…

Distance in time or space: de indicates the starting point/origin 

…d’ici – …from here

…de moi – …from me

Possession 

un ami à moi – a friend of mine

Ce livre est à Jean. This is Jean’s book.

Possession/belonging 

le livre de Paul – Paul’s book

le café de l’université – the university café

Purpose or use 

une tasse à thé – teacup (cup for tea)

une boîte à allumettes – matchbox (box for matches)

un sac à dos – backpack (pack for the back)

Contents/description 

une tasse de thé – cup of tea

une boîte d’allumettes – box (full) of matches

un roman d’amour – love story (story about love)

Manner, style, or characteristic 

fait à la main – made by hand

Il habite à la française. He live in the French style.

un enfant aux yeux bleus – blue-eyed child

Defining feature 

le marché de gros – wholesale market

une salle de classe – classroom

un livre d’histoire – history book

Defining ingredient 

Use à when the food is made with something that can be taken away without destroying it – as a general rule, you can translate it as “with.”

un sandwich au jambon – ham sandwich

la soupe à l’oignon – onion soup

une tarte aux pommes – apple pie

Indispensible ingredient 

Use de when the food is made primarily of something – generall speaking, you can translate it as “of” or “from.”

la crème de cassis – blackcurrant liqueur

la soupe de tomates – tomato soup

le jus d’orange – orange juice

Impersonal expressions: real subject 

C’est bon à savoir. That’s good to know.

C’est facile à faire. That’s easy to do.

Impersonal expressions: dummy subject 

Il est bon d’etudier. It’s good to study (Studying is good).

Il est facile de le trouver. It’s easy to find it (Finding it is easy).

Additional uses of à Additional uses of de
Measurement 

acheter au kilo – to buy by the kilogram

payer à la semaine – to pay by the week

Cause 

mourir de faim – to die of/from hunger

fatigué du voyage – tired from the trip

Point in time 

Nous arrivons à 5h00. We arrive at 5:00.

Il est mort à 92 ans. He died at the age of 92.

Means/manner of doing something 

écrire de la main gauche – to write with the left hand

répéter de mémoire – to recite from memory

The preposition de also tends to be very difficult, trying to figure out whether to use de, du, de la, or des. This part below summarizes when to use the preposition de all by itself and when to use the indefinite article, partitive article, or de + definite article (which looks like the partitive, but is not.).

A. Partitive and Indefinite article

The partitive article indicates an unknown quantity of something, usually food or drink.

Nous voudrions du lait. We’d like some milk.
J’ai mangé de la glace. I ate some ice cream.

The plural partitive article des refers to something plural uncountable.

Il a mangé des épinards. He ate some spinach.
Peux-tu me donner des conseils? Could you give me some advice?

The plural indefinite article des refers to more than one countable thing in an indefinite sense.

Il a des livres intéressants. He has some interesting books.
J’ai acheté des chaussettes. I bought some socks.

In a negative construction, the partitive and indefinite articles (singular and plural) change to de, usually meaning (not) any:

Nous ne voudrions pas de lait. We don’t want any milk.
Je n’ai pas mangé de soupe. I didn’t eat any soup.
Il n’a pas de livres intéressants. He doesn’t have any interesting books.
Je n’ai pas acheté de chaussettes. I didn’t buy any socks.
Nous n’avons pas de voiture. We don’t have a car.

Except if the verb is être:

C’est une poire, ce n’est pas une pomme. It’s a pear, it’s not an apple.
C’est de la viande. – Ce n’est pas de la viande. It’s meat. – It’s not meat.

Or if you want to stress the negative aspect:

Je n’ai pas de sous – Je n’ai pas un sou. I don’t have any money – I don’t have a (single) cent.

When the plural indefinite or partitive article is used with an adjective that precedes a noun, des changes to de.

J’ai des amis. – J’ai de jeunes amis. I have some friends. – I have some young friends.
(Note: J’ai un jeune ami. I have a young friend.)

J’ai mangé des épinards. – J’ai mangé de bons épinards. I ate some spinach. – I ate some good spinach.
(Note: J’ai mangé de la bonne sauce des éspinards. I ate some good spinach sauce.)

B. Adverbs of quantity, Adjectives, Containers, and Prepositional phrases

After most adverbs of quantity and containers, de stands alone.

Il y a beaucoup de problèmes. There are a lot of problems.
Peu d’étudiants sont ici. Few students are here.
J’ai mangé moins de soupe que Lucie. I ate less soup than Lucie.
J’aimerais un verre de jus. I’d like a glass of juice.

After adjectives and prepositional phrases, de stands alone.

La chambre est pleine de vêtements. The bedroom is full of clothes (clothes in general).
Les tables sont couvertes de gâteaux. The tables are covered in cakes (a bunch of cakes).
J’ai acheté du jus au lieu de vin. I bought juice instead of wine.
J’aimerais te parler au sujet d’écologie. I’d like to talk to you about ecology.

Except if the noun after de refers to specific people or things, then de is used with the definite article.

Beaucoup des problèmes sont graves. A lot of the problems are serious (specific or previously-mentioned problems).
Peu des étudiants de Thierry sont ici. Few of Thierry’s students are here (not students in general).
Le repas que Lucie a préparé est délicieux, mais j’ai mangé moins de la soupe que toi. The meal that Lucie made is delicious, but I ate less of the soup than you (soup from previously-mentioned meal).
J’aimerais un verre de jus que tu as apporté. I’d like a glass of juice that you bought (specific).
La chambre est pleine des vêtements de David. The bedroom is full of David’s clothes (specific).
Les tables sont couvertes des gâteaux dont je t’ai parlé. The tables are covered in the cakes that I told you about (specific).
J’ai acheté du jus au lieu du vin que tu as recommandé. I bought juice instead of the wine you recommended (specific).

C. Descriptive vs. Possessive de

To describe a noun with the de + descriptive noun construction, use de.

le livre d’étudiant – student book (book for or about students)
le panier de chien – dog basket (basket for a dog)

To show possession of a noun, use de + definite article*

le livre de l’etudiant / le livre des étudiantsthe student’s / students’ book (belongs to the student/s)
le panier du chienthe dog’s basket (as opposed to Lisa’s basket)

* Of course, a proper noun would not need a definite article

le livre de Michel – Michel’s book

If the descriptive noun is modified in order to distinguish a certain group of the given noun, use de + definite article. Note that these can then appear either descriptive or possessive. This construction is often used in advertising.

le livre de l’étudiant étranger – the foreign student book (book for foreign students) or the foreign student’s book (belongs to the student from Botswana)
le panier du chien délicatthe discriminating dog’s basket (“for discriminating dogs” or “there are two dogs; this basket belongs to the discriminating one”)

D. Verbs with prepositions

When verbs and expressions must be followed by the preposition de, the de vs des issue is similar to part C, above.

If de introduces an unmodified noun, use de.

Il faut changer de train ici. You have to change trains here.
Nous avons besoin d’argent. We need money.

If the noun that follows de is modified and refers to a specific noun (the word “the” may be needed in English), use de + definite article

Nous voulons profiter des nouveaux accords. We want to take advantage of the new agreements.
Il s’agit de la réforme agraire. It’s a question of land reform.

3. If the noun is preceded by an adjective but does not refer to a specific noun (the word “the” is not needed), use only de.

J’ai besoin de nouvelles chaussures. I need new shoes.
Il se moque de mauvaises idées. He makes fun of bad ideas.

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