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Articles, Part Two: un, une, des

This is Part Two of a series on articles. Read Part One here.

In this post, we’ll examine the indefinite articles. Indefinite, because putting them before nouns indicates randomness,  as opposed to something specific.  In English, indefinite articles are:

a  and an

In French, they are:

un /ehn/ or /ehn n…/ (a or an)

une /ünn/  (a or an)

des /day/ or /dayz/  (—)


When to Use…

 – All the time when not using le, la, les, l’ or du, de la, des, de l’. 


1) There is only one:

 Any time you would use “a” or an” in English, use un /ehn/-/ehn n/ for masculine nouns or une /ünn/ for feminine nouns.


I give you a bowl of soup.  I give you a bowl of soup pronouciation.


2) There are more than one:

Trickier. Because that’s when in English, we’d put nothing:


des chiens  Dogs.

e   Eggs.

des magasinsShops.



English is simple and elegant that way. But French… French doesn’t do “nothing-before-noun”. A-han. You MUST put something there:


des chiens  des chiens /day she ehn/

e  des oeufs /dayz uhr/

des magasins des magasins /day mah gah zehn/

S des gens /day zhon/

*Note that “des” will mean either a general plural, as above, or “some”: some cookies —> des biscuits.


How to use…


(That is when you wish you had memorized nouns’ genders along with each word. Well, it’s never too late!)


un /ehn/ is used with masculine words:

un train  /ehn trehn/  a train.

un chien  /ehn she ehn/   a dog.

un bâton  /ehn bah tohn/  a stick.

un bâtiment /ehn bah tee mon/ a building.

un coiffeur /ehn kwa fuh ruh/ a (male) hairdresser.

un film /ehn feelmuh/  a movie. 


un /ehn n…/ is used with masculine words starting with a vowel:

un éléphant /ehn naylayfon/ an elephant

un ami /ehn namee/ a (male) friend

un oeuf /ehn nuhf/ an egg

un arbre /ehn narbruh/ a tree


Note that in English, if we speak slowly, we separate syllables after “an”:

An-egg. I. Want. An. Egg!

If French, strangely, it is not so. We will still pronounce un /ehn/, but add a /n/ onto the following word:

Un (n)oeuf. Je. Veux. Un. Noeuf!
/ehn nuhf zhe vuhr ehn nuhf/

Un (n)oeuf serial killer.


une /ünn/ is used with feminine words:

une voiture /ünn vwa tü ruh/ a car

une tortue /ünn tortü/ a turtle

une pelle /ünn pell/ a shovel

une administration /ünah dmini strah see own/ an administration

une coiffeuse /ünn kwa fuhr zuh/ a female hairdresser

une photo /ünn foe toe/ a picture


des /day/ is used with plurals:

des roues /day roo/ wheels, or some wheels

des leçons /dayl s’own/ lessons, or some lessons


des /dayz/ is used with plurals starting with a vowel:

des amis /dayzah mee/ friends, or some friends

des histoires /day zee stwar/ stories, or some stories


de /duh/ is used with plurals, when an adjective comes before it:

devant un adjectif qui vient devant le nom

de bons amis /duh bonzamee/ good friends

de belles histoires /dbell zee stwar/ nice stories



It is important to make a clear distinction between un /ehn/ and une /ünn/. Failing to do so not only creates a major irritant, but could also be confusing to your interlocutor. In the French grammar psyche, gender is an important part of the noun. Confusing noun’s gender could mean not being understood at all.

For one, there are all those double-duty hermaphrodite nouns, carrying a different meaning depending on the gender used:

un livre /ehn leevruh/ (a book) , une livre /ünn leevruh/ (a pound);

un foie /ehn fwa/ (a liver), une fois /ünn fwa/ (one time);

un pot /ehn po/ (a pot, a container), une peau /ünn peau/ (a skin)

More importantly, sticking the wrong gendered article in front of a noun really impedes its comprehension and may lead to an entire different perception of what is being said. For instance someone meaning to say, a tissue (un mouchoir) and using the wrong gender will confuse their interlocutor:

une mouchoir

The distinction between masculine un /ehn/ and feminine une /ünn/ is that in the latter, the tongue touches the palate, whereas in the former, the sound is nasal. Listen.

But the unlikeness doesn’t stop there. Visual plays a role also. Lip placement distinguishes the two.

For masculine words, un /ehn/, smile (you are making the sound from “land”, except without the “l” nor the “nd”. Click here to hear and see):

in, un

For feminine words, une /ünn/, kiss:


Over To You!

Un, une, des: grammar explanation and exercise (Via Tex’s French Grammar / University of Texas at Austin – USA)

Un, une or des? Click. (Via Carol H. Reitan / FOG French Online Grammar Quiz – USA)

Un, une or des? Write out (Via Yung Truong / Vanier College – Quebec, Canada)

Un, une, des or le, la, les, l’? Write out (Via Eléonore Degrigny / EOI de Valdepeñas – Spain)

Same thing (Via Intensivkurs – Französisch-Lernplattform / Université de Graz – Austria)


© Ouicestca 2012, tous droits réservés.

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2 thoughts on “Articles, Part Two: un, une, des

  1. Thanks! Articles are often tricky in French. Us teachers tend to spend too little time on them, because for a French speaker it seems effortless. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you got those down, you actually have made a big leap forward.

    Just realized some of the images weren’t showing properly, hope it’s fixed now.

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