Articles are small words that you use only with nouns. They both present a noun and indicate the gender and number of a noun. French has definite, indefinite, and partitive articles. The following sections describe these three types of articles and identifies when and how you should use them in your French writing and speech.

Definite articles indicate that the noun they’re presenting is specific. In English, the definite article is the. French has three different definite articles, which tell you that the noun is masculine, feminine, or plural. If the noun is singular, the article is le (for masculine nouns) or la (for feminine nouns). If the noun is plural, the article is les no matter what gender the noun is. If a singular noun begins with a vowel or mute h, the definite article le or la contracts to l’, as in l’ami (the friend) and l’homme (the man).

Indefinite articles refer to an unspecific noun. The English indefinite articles are a and an. French has three indefinite articles — un (for masculine nouns),une (for feminine nouns), and des (for masculine or feminine plural nouns). Which one you use depends on the noun’s gender and number. You use the indefinite article in basically the same way in French and English — to refer to an unspecific noun, as in J’ai acheté une voiture (I bought a car) or Je veux voir un film (I want to see a movie). Note that un and une can also mean one: J’ai un frère (I have one brother). Des is the plural indefinite article, which you use for two or more masculine and/or feminine nouns: J’ai des idées (I have some ideas). When you make a sentence with an indefinite article negative, the article changes to de, meaning (not) any.
  • J’ai des questions. (I have some questions.)
  • Je n’ai pas de questions. (I don’t have any questions.)

Partitive articles

Partitive articles are used with things that you take only part of. They don’t exist in English, so the best translation is the word some. There are, once again, three partitive articles, depending on whether the noun is masculine (du), feminine (de la), or plural (des). You use the partitive article with food, drink, and other uncountable things that you take or use only a part of, like air and money, as well as abstract things, such as intelligence and patience. If you do eat or use all of something, and if it is countable, then you need the definite or indefinite article. Compare the following:
  • Je veux du gâteau. (I want some cake — just a piece or two.)
  • Je veux le gâteau. (I want the cake — the whole one.)
  • Je veux un gâteau. (I want a cake — for my birthday party.)
When a singular noun begins with a vowel or mute h, the partitive article du or de la contracts to de l’, as in de l’eau (some water) and de l’hélium (some helium). Partitive Articles Use the partitive article to expresses that you want part of a whole (some or any), to ask for an indefinite quantity (something that is not being counted). Before a noun, the partitive is generally expressed by de + the definite article. Note that de + le contract to become du and de + les contract to become des, as shown in Table 1. Note the following about the use of the partitive article: Although the partitive some or any may be omitted in English, it may not be omitted in French and must be repeated before each noun. Il prend des cèrèales et du lait. (He’s having cereal and milk.) In a negative sentence, the partitive some or any is expressed by de or d’ without the article. Je ne mange jamais de fruits. (I never eat any fruits.) Je n’ai pas d’amis. (I don’t have any friends.) Before a singular adjective preceding a singular noun, the partitive is expressed with or without the article. C’est de (du) bon gâteau. (That’s good cake.) Before a plural adjective preceding a plural noun, the partitive is expressed by de alone. Ce sont de bons èlèves. (They are good students.) Certain nouns and adverbs of quantity are followed by the partitive article de ( d’ before a vowel). The following nouns and adverbs of quantity are followed by de + definite article: la plupart (most) bien (a good many) la majoritè (the majority) la plus grande partie (the majority) La plupart des gens aiment ce film. (Most people like this movie.) The adjectives plusieurs (several) and quelques (some) modify the noun directly. J’adore plusieurs lègumes. (I like several vegetables.) Il achète quelques livres. (He is buying some books.) The partitive is not used with sans (without) and ne … ni … ni (neither … nor). Elle prendra du thè sans citron. (She’ll take tea without lemon.) Il ne boit ni cafè ni thè. (He doesn’t drink coffee or tea.)