TNs, U07: Food 1 (Partitive Article, Count Noun or Mass Noun, Omitted Articles, De + Definite Art.)

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The Partitive Article

The partitive article is used for unspecified amounts of uncountable nouns. In English, it can translate to "some", but it's often just omitted. Remember that du is a contraction of de + le and that partitives can elide: du and de la become de l’ before a vowel sound.

Gender Partitive Article Example
Masculine du Je mange du poisson. — I am eating fish.
Feminine de la Je mange de la viande. — I am eating meat.
Elided Masc. de l' Je mange de l'ananas. — I am eating pineapple.
Elided Fem. de l' Je bois de l'eau. — I am drinking water.

Nouns almost never appear without articles in French, so articles must be repeated in serial lists.

  • Il cuisine du poisson et de la viande — He cooks fish and meat.

Count Noun, Mass Noun, or Both?

Count nouns are discrete and can be counted, like une pomme ("an apple"). They can be modified by definite and indefinite articles, but usually not partitive articles.

  • Je mange une pomme. — I eat an apple.
  • Nous mangeons les pommes. — We are eating the apples.

Mass nouns like lait ("milk") are uncountable, and they can be modified by definite and partitive articles, but not indefinite articles.

  • Je bois du lait. — I am drinking [some] milk.
  • Je bois le lait. — I am drinking the milk.

However, many nouns can behave as both count nouns and mass nouns. This is true for most edible things. For instance, consider poisson ("fish") or vin ("wine"):

  • Count noun: Le poisson est rouge. — The fish is red.
  • Mass noun: Je mange du poisson. — I eat [some] fish.
  • Count noun: Le vin est blanc. — The wine is white.
  • Mass noun: Je bois du vin rouge ou blanc. — I drink red or white wine.

Note that some mass nouns can be pluralized in English when they refer to multiple types of the noun, but this usage isn't found in French. For instance, "the fishes" refers to multiple species of fish, while les poissons just refers to multiple fish.

Omitted Articles

When an article is missing in an English sentence, it must be added to the French translation. The definite article can be used to fill this void in four situations:

  1. Almost anywhere one would use "the" in English (i.e. when referring to specific things).
  2. Before the subject of a sentence to state general truths about it.
  3. Before the direct object of a verb of appreciation (like aimer) to express like/dislike.
  4. Before categories (singular or plural), concepts and immaterial things.

If any of the above is true, then use the definite article. Otherwise, use the indefinite or partitive article. When in doubt, add “some” before the English bare noun; if the sentence keeps its meaning, use the indefinite or partitive article.

  • I like wine, but I am drinking milk. — J'aime le vin, mais je bois du lait.

Both articles are missing in the English version of this example. Aimer expresses fondness for wine, so le vin should be used there. However, boire is not a verb of appreciation, so the partitive du should be used on the uncountable lait.

  • I study art and I draw cats. — *J’étudie l’art et je dessine des chats.

“Art” is a concept, so l’art should be used there. Dessiner is not an appreciation verb and the plural object “cats” only means “some cats”, so the plural indefinite des should be used on the count noun chats.

  • Horses are animals. — Les chevaux sont des animaux.

This is a general truth about horses, but #2 above can only apply to subjects, so only chevaux takes a definite article here. Animaux are countable, so use the plural indefinite des.

  • He likes to eat meat. — Il aime manger de la viande.

This is a tricky example because the meat is the direct object of manger, not aimer. Thus, #3 does not apply and viande cannot take a definite article.

Also, the French definite article can be ambiguous when translating from French to English. Depending on the context, it can refer to either a specific noun or the general sense of a noun.

  • Les chiens sont nos amis. — Dogs are our friends. / The dogs are our friends.

De + Definite Article

De plus a definite article can also have other meanings. De means "of" or "from", so this can also indicate possession or association with a definite noun.

  • La copie du livre. — The copy of the book.
  • Les copies des livres. — The copies of the books.
  • L'enfant de la femme. — The woman's child.

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2 months ago

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I found a website that explains some common count and mass nouns in English that could help clarify the difference further.

Additionally, how would words like "le raisin" fit into these definitions? It appears that the word "grape" acts as a count noun in English, while "le raisin" acts as a mass noun in French. Is this correct? If so, are there any other anomalies like the example above?

1 month ago
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"Le raisin" is both a mass noun and a count noun. Most of the time, the mass noun is used like "fruit" is in English, but there can be regional differences.

"Grapes" refer to the individual berries, whereas "une grappe" is a bunch and "grapes" are "des grains de raisin".

  • Je mange du raisin (mass noun) = I am eating grapes.
  • On peut faire du vin blanc avec du raisin noir ou blanc (mass noun) /des raisins noirs ou blancs (count noun) = You can make wine with black or white grapes.
  • Il y a des raisins secs dans le gâteau (count noun) = There are raisins in the cake.

I can't think of another word used as a mass noun in French and countable in English, but the opposite is very common.

1 month ago
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