The three things that prepositions evoke i.e. the concepts of place, time, and movement are so abstract, prepositions can be one of the most difficult elements of any foreign language. Despite having difficulties to learn French, you can start from the basics, and learning French prepositions can be a good start.
There is a huge difference between the prepositions used in English and French. For example: In English, we say ‘I am going to the bed’ while in French, we say ‘I am going to bed’. Each language has its own framework for understanding these ideas, which means that every time you learn a new language, you’ll have to put yourself in the shoes of the people who speak it.
To master French prepositions, you must forget everything you know about English prepositions. But, before getting straight into the French prepositions, it is important for you to understand what prepositions really are.
As with any grammatical element in French, it’s critical to first understand what you’re dealing with. So let us begin by defining what a preposition is. You can probably guess from the word “preposition” that it’s a word that comes before something; it is pre-posed. However, this is insufficient.
In reality, a preposition is a word that indicates one of three things: location, time, or movement. Let’s start by breaking things down into smaller chunks and working our way up.
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Prepositions of place are perhaps the best place to start. Among all prepositions, they are the most physically present in space and thus may be the easiest to master.
Place prepositions allow you to physically locate a person, place, or thing in space. The prepositions of place in French are:
There are more compound prepositions of place (and all categories), but it’s best to start with the simple ones, and some of these are fairly simple to a French learner. Sur (on), sous (under), entre (between), dans (in), devant (in front of), and derrière (behind) are all very similar in usage to their English counterparts.
There are a few exceptions, however, due to differences in how English and French think about space. In English, you might say, “I’m on the bus.” However, in French, you would say, “Je suis dans le bus.” Dans refers to any mode of transportation in French, including trains, buses, trams, and trolleys.
Another exception is the use of à as a preposition of place, even though, as we will see in a moment, it is usually a preposition of movement. It is used as a preposition of place to mean “at,” but the French have other uses for à that do not correspond with “at” in English. These are typically used in situations where we would say “in” but do not actually mean “in” something, such as the above sentence about being “in bed.”
“I’m in Paris,” you’ll say in English. However, in French, you would say, “Je suis à Paris.” en is used for any feminine country name, whereas au is used for any masculine country name:
- I am currently in France (I am currently in France)
- I am currently in Brazil (I am currently in Brazil)
For places (such as the supermarket, school, or church), you can also use the compound à + [article] forms of this preposition:
- Je suis au supermarché (I am at the supermarket.)
- Je suis à l’église. (I am at church.)
- Je suis au parc. (I am at the park.)
- Je suis à l’école. (I am at school.)
- Je suis à la banque. (I am at the bank.)
- e suis allé aux marchés de Noël (I went to the Christmas markets.)
The word chez may pose a problem for you when it comes to prepositions of place. Why? Simply because it does not exist in English. Having said that, you’ll quickly discover that it’s a very useful preposition to have in your weapons.
Chez is frequently translated as “at __’s house.” If you’re going to Marie’s house, for example, you’d say, Je vais chez Marie. The only problem with this translation is that chez does not always refer to someone’s home; it can also refer to someone’s workplace. For example:
- Je vais chez le coiffeur (I am going to the hairdresser.)
- Je vais chez le dentist (I am going to the dentist.)
- Je reviens de chez Pierre (I just got back from Pierre’s house.)
- Elle habite chez ses parents (She lives at her parents’ house.)
When you have already mastered prepositions of place, it’s time to move on to prepositions of time in French. As the name implies, French prepositions of time assist you in locating people, places, things, and events in time. The French prepositions of time are:
Many of these, like the prepositions of place, have direct English translations. These are avant (before), après (after), vers (around), and depuis (since) (since). Both pendant and pour, which translate to “for,” are a little frustrating.
With a few exceptions, many of these prepositions behave similarly to their English counterparts. One prominent example is depuis. When discussing events that have occurred since a specific date, durant is used similarly to “since”:
- Elle habite à Dubai depuis 2000 (She has lived in Dubai since 2000.)
However, it is also used with certain durations.
Take a look at these examples:
- Elle habite à Dubai depuis 2 ans.
- Elle revient à Dubai pour 2 ans.
The first example indicates that she has spent the last two years in Dubai. Two years ago, she relocated to Dubai. We have no idea when or if she will leave Dubai.
The second example indicates that she intends to return to Dubai for two years. She has an established plan to stay in Dubai for two years, after which she will leave.
Time prepositions in French frequently have English counterparts, but they are not always used in the same way. This has a lot to do with how people perceive time in English and French, specifically how the present, present continuous, and various past tenses are used in both languages. It is critical to work hard to master the French past tenses in order to properly use time-based French prepositions.
Prepositions can also be used to describe movement. While these prepositions are frequently related to spatial prepositions, they are not always the same. Here are the French prepositions of movement:
Each has an English equivalent: vers (towards), à (to), de (from), par (by, by way of).
The only difficulty here is that two of these prepositions are modified in relation to the preposition’s object, or the noun that follows. This rule is followed by the prepositions à and de.
The form of à is altered depending on whether the object of the preposition is feminine, masculine, or plural, or if it begins with a vowel:
- Je vais à l’école. (I am going to school.)
- Je vais au supermarché. (I am going to the supermarket.)
- Je vais à la bibliothèque (I am going to the library.)
In much the same way, de is modified depending on whether the object of the preposition is feminine, masculine, or plural, or if it begins with a vowel:
- Je reviens de l’école (I just got back from school.)
- Je reviens du supermarché (I just got back from the supermarket.)
- Je reviens de la bibliothèque (I just got back from the library.)
It will be much easier to address compound prepositions once you have mastered basic French prepositions. There are several difficulties that you may face while learning French such as the confusion between tout or tous.
To master the language, it is essential to keep using the words you learn in your daily conversations. It will help you improve fluency and command of the language.