French Articles: When Do I Use Them??

Now I understand how to change an article to agree with a noun, and I understand (to some extent) how to use the partitive article and such. What's really confusing me is that there are random definite and indefinite articles in places English wouldn't use them.

For instance, I have seen the phrase "I speak French" written as "je parle le français". I don't know for certain if that's even correct grammar in that instance, but basically what I'm saying is, there are random articles in French, that to a native English speaker seem random and unnecessary. Every time I try and search for answers I only come up with articles explaining how you change articles to agree with the Noun, and not WHEN to use them.

Does this make any sense? I hope so. I'm having a hard time phrasing this question. If anyone could point me to a good article, or take the time to explain this, I would be really grateful.

May 25, 2018


A definite article is almost always required (unless you're using the indefinite article(s)), but there are some scenarios where the definite article is either omitted or optional.

For making rough generalizations, definite articles are always required:

Les hamburgers sont très caloriques. Les oiseaux ont tous des ailes. Les fruits sont plus sucrés que les légumes.

This is only for very few cases, but there are some in which the definite article is optional. The only relevant one I know of is concerning languages (after 'parler').

Je parle (le) français. Je parle (l')allemand.

The most common situation in which the definite article is omitted is when talking about a profession. Most people just say 'I am blank'. This can vary based on the profession, but don't let it get to your head. In general, the article is always omitted for all 'er/ère' nouns.

Je suis médecin. Je suis boulanger. Je suis professeur de maths.

May 25, 2018

There's just one thing you might want to edit : je parle (l')allemand* (l'Allemagne is the country). Other than that, that's a great explanation !

May 25, 2018

Yeah, sorry. I somehow always manage to confuse the two ;__;

Thanks for pointing that out :)

May 25, 2018

Articles : le , la , un , une , e.t.c.

Includes definite and indefinite.

༠ And yes - you make sense :)

May 25, 2018

"Il est l'heure de manger." vs "Il est temps de manger."

When you ever get confused over French articles, I believe it's best to remember that articles are the way they communicate pluralization in actual speech. That's the reason the indefinite article 'des' exists in the first place.

Regarding the example I gave, it's naturally more difficult to pluralize more incorporeal and intangible nouns (I'm not sure if these words exactly fit the noun 'time'). You can very specifically imagine a collection of 'hours', but imagining a collection of 'times' is a bit harder because time has a much more loose definition (you can have 2 hours, but can you have 2 times?).

Based on that idea, saying "it's time to eat" is perfectly fine in French since time is already a general idea. But a defined unit of time like 'hour' needs to have an article to further define it.

The second issue to keep in mind is that articles are how they generalize nouns. "Il marche vendredi." vs "Il marche le vendredi.", in English it would be "He walks on Friday" vs "He walks on Fridays". Notice how in English we can just pluralize the word 'Friday' itself to create generality, while again the French can't do such a thing and have to rely on articles.

And this whole issue with pluralization/generalization is the reason why they have to say English words like 'fish sandwich' as 'sandwich au poisson'. Because of cases where the noun connected to 'sandwich' can be plural 'sandwich aux crevettes' (though in English we still keep it the singular 'shrimp sandwich').

Just as a warning, I should mention that I'm still a novice with French so I could very well be overlooking some things.

May 25, 2018

The number one situation where you need a definite article in French even though you wouldn't in English is when you are talking about something in general.

Birds drink water. — Les oiseaux boivent de l'eau.
I like coffee. — J'aime le café.

This can seem very strange to English speakers, because of course if you add a definite article to the above sentences in English, the meaning changes. You would only say "I like the coffee" to refer to a particular cup or blend of coffee, for example.

The feeling of strangeness is even stronger in sentences where adding a definite article in English would be impossible.

Love is in the air. — L'amour est dans l'air.
Physics is my favorite subject. — La physique est mon sujet préféré.

In any case, there is a rule for this sort of thing, and the complete version of it can be found in the Tips & Notes for the Adjectives 3 unit. The short version is:

In French, every noun (minus the inevitable exceptions) must be preceded by a determiner (of which articles are one type).

The French just don't like bald nouns. I think of this as a good thing, since one thing determiners do quite well is to carry information about number and gender. If you think grammatical agreement is difficult now, just imagine if there were no determiners!

Anyhow, if you ever find yourself with a bald noun in French (apart from the exceptions), try slapping a definite article in front of it. It will only help French speakers to understand you.

May 29, 2018
Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.