A French partitive article is used before a noun. There is no strict equivalent in English, but sometimes it is translated as “some.” Unlike in English, in French you will need an article before a noun 99 percent of the time.
Du, de l’, de la, and des designate an uncertain quantity or things that cannot be quantified like air, coffee, or jam.
De is used with a specific quantity, negation, or with generalities introduced by a verb followed by de.
Je veux bien du café. I’d gladly have some coffee.
Je mange des pâtes mais pas de riz. I eat pasta but not rice.
J’ai beaucoup de travail. I have a lot of work.
J’ai besoin de temps. I need time.
When do I use du, de la, de l’, des, and de?
Du, de la, de l’, and des are called “partitive articles” and are used when talking about undefined quantities of things, the weather, or activities. It is completely different from English.
Use French partitive articles when talking about something without giving a specific quantity. In English, you would use “some” or nothing.
With negation, du, de l’, de la, and des all become de.
Dans ma recette, il y a de la farine, des œufs, du lait, de l’huile mais pas de levure.
In my recipe there is flour, eggs, milk, oil but no baking powder.
→ You can practice with this exercise.
With sans and ne … ni … ni there is no article!
Il boit du café avec du lait mais sans sucre.
He drinks coffee with milk but no sugar.
On ne mange ni viande ni poisson.
We eat neither meat nor fish.
When describing the weather with il y a, you’ll use a partitive article before the noun:
Il y a des nuages. It is cloudy. (lit. There are clouds)
Il y a du soleil. It is sunny. (lit. There is sun)
Il y a du vent. It is windy. (lit. There is some wind)
Il y a de la grêle. It’s hailing. (lit. There is some hail)
Il y a de l’orage. It’s stormy. (lit. There is storm)
For disciplines such as sports, music, and school subjects you’ll also use partitive articles, when in English you’ll use “the” or nothing:
Il joue de la guitare. He plays the guitar.
Ils font du jiu jitsu et du karaté. They practice jiu jitsu and karate.
Il fait du droit. He studies law.
What is the difference between de and du, de la, des?
De is used after a specific quantity. It is like “of” in English. It is also used with a negative quantity, which would be “not any” in English. The great thing about when you determine a quantity is that you don’t need to know if what you are talking about is masculine or feminine!
De with quantities
Below is a list of some frequently used quantity expressions that are followed by de:
Il prend son café avec un soupçon de lait et un peu de sucre.
He drinks his coffee with a dash of milk and a little bit of sugar.
Il a acheté un kilo de fraises pour faire de la confiture.
He bought a kilo of strawberries to make jam.
De turns into d’ in front of a vowel or silent h (= not pronounced, as in the word l’hiver).
Il y a trop d’air, ferme la fenêtre !
There is too much draft, close the window!
De with negation
With être or when you want to contradict a statement, the rule is different. You can then use pas du, pas de la, pas de l’, and pas des.
Ce n’est pas de la salsa, c’est de la samba !
It is not salsa, it is samba!
Il ne joue pas du violon, il joue du piano !
He does not play the violin, he plays the piano!
French partitive articles with the preposition de and with the genitive
Partitive articles used with the preposition de
De can also be the plural form of d’un, d’une when you refer to something in general. Again, de becomes d’ in front of a vowel or a silent h.
De vs du, de la, de l’, des with a genitive
A genitive indicates possession. Here, de means “of.” A way to determine which article to use is to see if the noun introduced by de is specific or general.
→ You can practice with this exercise.
IN BRIEF: 5 tips to understand French Partitives Articles!
In French, always (99 percent of the time) use an article! So, don’t say Je bois café but Je bois du café! [I drink coffee.]
Partitive articles don’t really exist in English, so practice a lot to get familiar with this new concept.
Du, de la, de l’, and des are used as “some” to express an undefined quantity.
pas du, pas de la, pas de l’, pas des → pas de
When you don’t know if a noun is masculine or feminine, use a quantity and you’ll avoid the issue! Je veux ? lait → Je veux un peu de lait [I want a bit of milk] :)
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