Being that articles are used in English, French articles should, in theory, be relatively easy to master for English speakers (gender aside of course). However, one thing I have noticed is that, even though people have been using determinate and indeterminate articles all of their lives, many don't know the difference between them even in their mother tongue. For example, people don’t know the reason why they use "the" and not "an," and vice versa. So, when they are confronted with the choice of le, la, les, l', un, une, des in French, some people just give up.
In order to understand these articles better, let's start with some broad information:
- Using articles in French is almost a compulsion (You have a noun, you need an article). In comparison, the English use of articles is a bit slack (no offense intended). For example, sentences like "roses are red" sounds fine in English, even though the word "roses" is not accompanied by an article. In French, it would not do.
- Articles are essential to making French sound pleasant. If it can help you, here is a metaphor: imagine that the way you speak is the way you dress yourself. Whatever you choose to say, articles are what accessorize it. Gender is what colour coordinates it. If you don't use either of these, you are just wearing a loose fitting brown potato sack; only the most charming people can pull it off!
- But, most importantly, articles are valuable. They are clues. Look at the example below:
We can deduce three things from articles:
- The amount that we are talking about: is it one thing, many things or all the things available?
- The relationship between the subject and the thing: is it something common or rather special for them?
- The gender of words in French. But let's not get too hung up on that for now. If you want more information, have a look at this Gender Cheat Sheet.
By the way, if there ever was an "Article Cheat Sheet", it would be a surprisingly short and logical chart, like this:
Before we start to analyse this a bit more, a word of warning: a lot of teachers like to teach articles by splitting everything in two categories: countable and uncountable. I don't. I think it leads to absurd results. For example, if you think about the word viande (meat), the traditional approach considers it to be an uncountable item, therefore the plural des viandes should not exist. Yet, it does! Another example of a shortcoming is the word jus (juice). It should be uncountable, right? Think twice! I can say un jus, du jus, des jus. So let's put aside what you have already learned, and keep "countable vs. uncountable" only for the trickiest situations, and let's use the labels "easy to count" vs. "hard to count" instead.
Definitions of each of the types of articles
Type #1: Le, la, l', les
Le, la, l', les are determinate articles. They are the equivalent of "the" in English. This means the noun is one of the following:
- It is unique (there is only one of its kind around), or....
- Both people involved are familiar with the noun they are discussing because they have talked about it before.
- A generalization meant to encompass all things in that category.
- Le chat est sur le lit (The cat in on the bed).
You can guess the nature of the noun from the choice of articles. In the above example:
- The cat must be striking, it has been introduced before or it's the only one in sight, therefore it can't be confused with a different cat.
Now, here is the tough bit about determinate articles: sometimes, choosing between singular or plural can be difficult. My advice is to pay attention to your original English sentence. For example, do you mean to say "I like wine" or "I like wines"? If you are not sure which one is best, use the following clues:
- If the noun is hard to count, the singular le or la is preferable.
- If the noun is easy to count, use the plural les.
Wine, being a liquid, is generally seen as hard to count, so the singular le is preferable. Save the plural les for when you want to be more specific. For example, when you want to say "all of XYZ type." However, remember that this is a guideline and not a hard rule.
- J'aime le vin (all kinds of wine).
- J'aime les vins rouges (all red wines).
Type #2: Un, une, des
Un, une, des are indeterminate articles. They are the equivalent of "a/an" in English. It means that the noun is either:
- quite common
- interchangeable (not special)
- Il y a un chat sur le lit (There is a cat on the bed).
Here, the choice of article makes it's clear that the bond between the writer and the noun is weaker: the cat is not special at this point, it's still interchangeable with other similar cats and we can guess that it's probably the first time the writer has seen it.
Type #3: De la and du versus des
We have already established that des means "some." This is also true of de la (for feminine things) and du (for masculine things). However, even though all three mean that something is imprecise, they are not usually interchangeable words.
By the way, please note that de le DOESN’T EXIST. It's du!
Now, let's make things a bit clearer with a few examples. If I'm offering you:
- un fromage: you can expect to receive what is considered a "whole unit."
- du fromage: you can expect a piece of cheese.
- des fromages: you can expect a few cheeses. The size is not important as long as each is perceived as one unit.
Type #4: Multiple articles at the same time
I don't know if you have seen the expression un des... already. It simply means "one of." For example: "one of the kids" would be un des enfants.
However, if you want to say "one of my …," use un or une, followed by de (instead of des) and then followed by the plural version of "my" (mes no matter what the gender of the noun is). For example: un de mes amis (one of my friends) or une de mes amies (one of my lady friends).
Simple as that. Nothing too sinister! Which conveniently brings me to the the next section...
We don't use articles for:
- The days of the week
This is because when we add an article, it implies a weekly repetition. For example: Je travaille samedi = "I work Saturday," but je travaille le samedi = “I work every Saturday.”
For the months of the year, we usually say "in..." or "in the month of" like this: en mai (in May) or au mois de mai. Note the lack of capital letters. In French, capitals are reserved for special occasions, and days and months are really not that special!
- Proper names
Place names, people's names and some holiday names would look very odd with an article. For example, Christmas is called Noël (not le noël) and Easter is Pâques.
- When using something that acts like an article
Par (per) is a preposition, but it acts like an article. If you say "per week” or “per day" it would be par semaine or par jour. The same applies to possessive adjectives. If you say "my" in French (mon, ma, mes depending on the gender and the amount) you don't need an article after it.
- When de means "of" (and not "some")
Some words, such as adverbs of quantities, are always followed by de (or d' if the noun starts with a vowel). For example: beaucoup de..., un peu de..., trop de..., assez de....
In a negative sentence, pas is also followed by de.
In all of these cases, don't put an article between de and the noun. The only time de is followed by an article, is when we mean "some" (de la).
That's pretty much it for theory today. I hope the subject is a lot clearer and less off putting now! However, if it's not, don't skip articles altogether; you will sound like Tarzan ("me want banana!"). If you are still unsure about when to use determinate/indeterminate articles, please stick to indeterminate ones (un, une, des) as they are more common.
For another example of the difference articles can make in the French language, have a look at the section about money in this italki article. The word argent is typically used with three common articles (l', de l' and d'), so it will be a useful read!