We all know French uses Le before some nouns, and we even do it in English when we want to sound French:
Le car, Le cake, Le shopping etc.
But the reality is that more than just “le” is used. You see, in French, nouns are conjugated, if you will. Except the conjugation happens in the beginning of the word instead of at the end:
le camion, la voiture, les enfants, l’heure
the truck, the car, the children, the hour
un chemin, une amie, des achats
a way, a friend, buys
du café, de la bière, de l’eau
coffee, beer, water
pas de café, pas d‘eau
no coffee, no water
Now the question is: When to use which and where?
Tricky. This is something that takes longer to learn, often because it is not given its proper importance from the start. We think Yeah, right, articles are easy peasy, beginner stuff, been there done that…
But that is where we err. Knowing when and where to use which article IS tough stuff. Because you must use the right one to be understood, the same way you must use the right tense and person on a verb conjugation to get your meaning across. And this demands a little more brooding over.
In this series, we will try to untangle this together.
Let’s start with the articles le /luh/, la /lah/, l’ /l/, les /lay/ :
These correspond to the article “the” in English.
1. What are they?
le /luh/ is used for masculine nouns:
le verre /luh vair/:(the glass)
le bonheur /luh bonn uhr/: (the concept of happiness)
le chien /luh she ehn/: (the dog)
le facteur: /luh fact uhr/: (the mailman)
la /lah/ is used for feminine words:
la tasse /lah tah ss/: (the cup)
la chaleur /lah shah luhr/: (the heat)
la tortue /lah tor tü/: (the turtle)
la lettre /lah let ruh/: (the letter)
l’ /l/ is used in front of those words starting with a vowel, or the letter H (except for exceptions, such as le héros /luh ay row/ the hero).
l’ is used on both feminine and masculine nouns:
l’assiette (f.) /lassee ette/ : (the plate)
l’amitié (f.) /lamee tyay/ : (the concept of friendship)
l’oiseau (m.) /lwa zow/ : (the bird)
l’ingénieur (m.) /lehn jay knee uhr/ : (the engineer)
les /lay/ is used in front of plurals, masculine or feminine:
les verres /lay vair/: (the glasses)
les tortues /lay tor tü/: (the turtles)
2. The Catch
The first thing one notices, is how important knowing word gender becomes.
The second thing you might have noticed is how there is no pronounced “z” at the end of plural words. Of course, when written, plurals take an “s”; but not when spoken.
In English, we say turtles /tur tulz/ and that is how we now there is more than one.
In French, the ending won’t tell you much: tortue /tortü/, tortues /tortü/. That’s when the article becomes crucial. Is it la tortue /lah tor tü/ (only one) or les tortues /lay tor tü/ (more than one)?
So for plurals, listen for a les /lay/ or a les /layz/ IN FRONT of the noun:
les pommes /lay pom/ (the apples)
les oranges /layz or onjuh/ (the oranges)
A note on masculine nouns. Be extra careful to pronounce le /luh/ and les /lay/ and not to pronounce le /lay/:
le chien /luh shee ehn/ (only one dog) ;
les chiens /lay shee ehn/ (more than one dog).
3. When to use them?
As you can see above, noun “conjugations” give us information about the noun’s gender, whether it’s known or random, and its quantity.
le, la les, l’, tell us that…
- It’s what we previously talked about:
Où est le restaurant? Where is the restaurant? Or…
- It’s the only one that exists or that counts:
Il connaît la terre entière. He knows the whole world. Or…
- It’s something that belongs to someone:
Ce sont les livres de Paul. These are Paul’s book. Or…
- we’re talking about the generic, as opposed to one particular item:
Le sushi se mange cru. Sushi is eaten raw.
But wait there’s a trick. Le, la, les, l’ are generally used with the following verbs:
- aimer (and other liking/disliking verbs)
- regarder (“look at the…”)
Ils adorent le pain.
They love bread.
Elle n’aime pas la soupe aux nouilles.
She doesn’t like noodle soup.
Il déteste les gens qui puent.
He hates people who stink.
On préfère le premier.
We prefer the first one.
Vous ne regardez pas la télévision.
You don’t watch television.
Vous connaissez le Louvre?
Do you know the Louvre?
Over To You!
Here are some exercises to help you determine when to use le, la, les, l’:
Click, watch and listen: some verbs use “des” / “de l'”, while others use le, la, les, l’. Can you tell which ones? (From Jane Zemiro & Alan Chamberlain / Tapis Volant – Cengage Learning Australia)
Le, la, les, l': Which one? (Via French eLearning exercises / Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School – Great Britain)
Click! (Carol H. Reitan / FOG French Online Grammar Quiz – USA)
Feeling confident? Test yourself! (Via Carol H. Reitan / FOG French Online Grammar Quiz – USA)
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