I don't get French prepositions!
December 4, 2012 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Dear French speaking Mefites: I am an idiot. I can't get the prepositions down! Knowing when to say "au" or "du" is KILLING me. I've made cheat sheets and have memorized most of the set phrases I can, but when I'm writing on my own I inevitably foul it up or blank. Can you help?

My professor says that there are no tricks or easy ways to remember them, but you are a clever bunch, so maybe there's something I'm just not getting that you can help me with. Or you can just yell at me. I don't know why this is giving me so much trouble! I feel like a failure. How do I know when it's du vs. au or any other combination of prepositions?

I give you permission to speak to me like a 5 year old. Thank you!
posted by two lights above the sea to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, it's not that hard at all.

Use "du" anytime you would want to use "de le" with a noun, for example "La bouche de le cheval." is actually "La bouche du cheval." "Du" being a preposition for masculine nouns, contrasted with "de la" for feminin nouns, ex: "La bouche de la giraffe."

Very similar for "au", use it instead of "à le". Example: "Je vais à le parc." should be "Je vais au parc." Contrast with the feminin nouns, ex: "Je vais à la plage."

Hope this helps.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:14 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

I kind of think of it as "au" going toward/in something/some place and "du" being of/coming from/away from it? Correct me if I'm wrong, I'm a little rusty.. Mostly I try not to think about it at all, to just hear it and say it enough that I am used to the way it operates and sounds in particular phrases. But to kind of trigger your memory it might help to learn some phrases that use both and map well to English? Like "du jour au soir" = "from day to night"
posted by citron at 4:22 PM on December 4, 2012

Nope, there's basically no rules to learn. Which preposition to use in any language is basically a thing where the right one sounds right and the wrong one sounds wrong and only native speakers know the difference.

So with this in mind, the best way to learn how to use them is simply to read and read and read and subvocalise and read out loud and get as much real French flowing through your brain as possible. And then you'll find you're getting them right more often than not.
posted by ambrosen at 4:52 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

To clarify, are you having trouble remember things like which prepositions go with which verbs? Like "décider de faire" versus "commencer à faire"? For that there are no real rules; it's simply arbitrary and you'll need to learn it by rote or by experience.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:13 PM on December 4, 2012

About.com is great for French grammar, actually.
[A vs. de]
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:16 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I tossed this over to my partner, who is French and teaches French at a college, but has had limited success making anything French clear to ME. ;) All of the below is from her.

All three posters are right. First of all, au is a contraction of à + le and du is a contraction of de + le. So the real question is, when do you use à vs. de.

If you are actually using verbs of motion, "à" is towards whereas "de" is coming from. So "il va au cinéma" and "elle sort du cinéma" or "Je vais au Japon" but "Je viens du Japon" so it's pretty logical in these cases.

(Of course, there are rules for countries and it just so happens that Japon is masculine and starts with a consonant so you say "au" but if it were feminine or starting with a vowel, you'd use "en", but that's another story.)

If you are using verbs of communication, "à" means "to" and "de" means either "from" or "about." Thus:
Je parle du film (I'm speaking about the film).
Je parle au film (I'm speaking to the film - because I'm nuts).
Je reçois des lettres de mon oncle (I receive letters from my uncle).

It's also pretty logical in those cases too. à is a destination of sorts and de is an origin.

BUT. As the third poster says, for some cases, there is no rule. That is particularly the case for the structure VERB + PREP + INFINITIVE. Many French verbs take a preposition if they are going to be followed by an infinitive. Such as

Commencer à + inf
Finir de + inf
réussir à + inf
choisir de + inf

And in those cases, you are just screwed. You need to memorize the preposition as part of the verb, the same way you memorize gender as part of the noun.

Other fun verbs that take à: jouer à + game; réussir à + noun
Other fun verbs or expressions that take de: jouer de + musical instrument; the "avoir" idiomatic expressions:
avoir peur de, avoir besoin de, avoir l'air de, avoir honte de....

Oh. You also use "à" for modes of transportation if you don't get IN them:

voyager à pied (by foot), à cheval (neigh), à bicyclette, à chameau (camel), à skateboard, à roller, à chat (if your cat is large enough), à quatre pattes (crawling)...

(vs. EN bateau, en voiture, en bus, en train, en mongolfière (hot air balloon), en caravane, en calèche, en concord, en hélicoptère....)
posted by houseofdanie at 5:35 PM on December 4, 2012 [14 favorites]

Oh man! This:

Use à when the food is made with something that can be taken away without destroying it - as a general rule, you can translate it as "with." If you take out the ham or onion, you still have a sandwich or soup.

Use de when the food is made primarily of something - generally speaking, you can translate it as "of" or "from." If you take away the blackcurrants or tomatoes, you're left with not much at all.

WAS SO HELPFUL! I never thought about it this way and it was never explained to me this way, and the test I have tomorrow is on food and aaaauuuuughhh... I get when to use them MOST of the time, but for food I was completely perplexed.

Yeah, I know I'm BAD at this stuff. I'm an ace at neuroscience though, so nyah!

So yeah, more French preposition tips are welcome! :D
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:47 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look for a specially focused book on French prepositions. You'd be amazed what's out there.

Also, there are a lot of French-language-learning web sites with built-in quizzes. Also podcasts. There will be a lot of preposition-specific material, because this is a common problem, and not just for learners of French. Prepositions are crazy in lots of languages (maybe all, I don't know), because just a few preposition words have to indicate a near-infinite array of possible relationships among things.
posted by amtho at 8:51 PM on December 4, 2012

If you're not sure which but you have internet access, google both. The one with the most hits is probably right. Doesn't help in exams, but can with essays etc.
posted by kjs4 at 9:13 PM on December 4, 2012

If you're looking for a clear and extremely good guide to French grammar, the one to go for is H.Ferrar's A French Reference Grammar. It is concise, but complete enough to take you through from beginner to fluency. It's mainly available in the UK but you can pick up copies in the US too.

It has whole sections devoted to prepositions, participles, comparisons, verb construction. Each section has examples you can follow as well as an explanation. It also has a good index.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:00 AM on December 5, 2012

Note that prepositions are confusing for French people too. For instance, Je vais au + place (i.e. marché, cinéma) is correct but Je vais au + shopkeeper/profession (boucher, docteur) is not: the correct use is chez le instead of au, because the "destination" is a person. Still many people say Je vais au docteur...
posted by elgilito at 7:09 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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