Definite and Indefinite Articles in French

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

French has three times as many definite articles as English, since French articles indicate whether something is considered masculine or feminine. Read on to learn what French definite and indefinite articles are and how to use them.

Remember English Class?

French, like English, has definite and indefinite articles. You may be asking: wait, English has what, now? You can speak English all day long and never stop to think about all the articles you're using. Articles are a kind of adjective, which is to say they describe nouns. Handsome, witty and intelligent are all adjectives that describe me.

A definite article is used to describe a specific object, and in English, we only have one. The. That's the only definite article we have. Here's an example of 'the' in action:

He thought the kitten was winking at him.

Since we're talking about a specific kitten, we use a definite article.

An indefinite article, then, is the opposite - it can refer to any one of a number of objects, or one part of a group. In English we have two indefinite articles: 'a' and 'an.' Which one you use depends on the first letter of the word it's modifying. Generally, we use 'a' before a word that begins with a consonant and 'an' before a word that begins with a vowel, although there are exceptions to that rule. Here are some examples of indefinite articles in action:

All his life, he wanted a pet kitten.

In this example, he doesn't have a specific kitten in mind - any kitten will do. Therefore, we use the indefinite article. Because 'pet' begins with a consonant, we use 'a.'

He had been waiting for an awfully long time.

Since we're not discussing a specific time, the indefinite article is correct. We use 'an' because 'awfully' begins with a vowel.

Definite Articles en Français

Things are a bit more complicated in French. French has more definite and indefinite articles than English, because French nouns are gendered. For example, a French boat is male (le bateau, pronounced luh ba-toe) but a car is female (la voiture, or la vwa-tyur); beer is female (la bière, or la byair) but wine is male (le vin, pronounced luh vahn). It can be a tough concept to wrap your head around if you were raised only speaking English.

As you might have noticed from the examples of masculine nouns above, the definite article for masculine nouns is le, pronounced luh:

Le chaton était adorable.
Luh sha-ton eh-tay ah-doh-rah-bluh.
The kitten was adorable.

'Kitten' is a masculine noun in French, so we use the definite article le.

Feminine nouns are preceded by la, pronounced lah, like a singer warming up her voice:

Le chaton était blanc comme la lune.
Luh sha-ton eh-tay blonk kum lah loon.
The kitten was as white as the moon.

Since the moon is a feminine noun, la is the correct definite article to use.

A French article can also signal whether the noun is plural. The French indicate a plural noun by using the definite article les, pronounced lay:

Le chaton a voulu que les gâteries pour chats dans sa poche.
Luh sha-ton ah voo-loo kuh lay get-ree por sha don sa poshe.
The kitten wanted the cat treats in his pocket.

Here we used le for the kitten again, but you would use les to describe the plural treats.

Much in the same way that the indefinite articles in English, 'a' and 'an,' depend on the first letter of the word coming after, French definite articles can become contractions when they precede a noun that begins with a vowel. Le and la become l'. For instance, 'the child' is l'enfant, (say: lahn-fahn) and 'the hour' becomes l'heure (pronounced kind of like luhr).

Indefinite Articles en Français

As with the definite articles, French has indefinite articles for male, female and plural nouns.

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