À vs De: French Prepositions

Learn How to Use These Common Prepositions

Nice-Villd train station
"partir de Nice" (to leave from Nice). Jon Boyes / Getty Images

As you learn French, you will find yourself using the prepositions à and de often. Depending on their usage, they can mean entirely different things or the exact same thing. It is a common source of confusion for many French students, but this lesson will teach you the difference.

À vs De: French Prepositions

The French prepositions à and de cause constant problems for French students. Generally speaking, à means to, at, or in, while de means of or from.

Both prepositions have numerous uses and in order to understand each better, it is best to compare them.

Location or destinationStarting point or origin
Je vais à RomeI'm going to Romepartir de Niceto leave from (out of) Nice
Je suis à la banque I'm at the bankJe suis de BruxellesI'm from Brussels
Distance in time or space.
Note that à is used in front of the distance, while de indicates the starting point/origin.
Il habite à 10 mètres...He lives 10 meters......d'ici...from here
C'est à 5 minutes...It's 5 minutes......de moi...from me
PossessionPossession / belonging (Learn more)
un ami à moia friend of minele livre de PaulPaul's book
Ce livre est à JeanThis is Jean's bookle café de l'universitéthe university café
Purpose or useContents / description
une tasse à théteacup (cup for tea)une tasse de thécup of tea
une boîte à allumettesmatchbox (box for matches)une boîte d'allumettesbox (full) of matches
un sac à dosbackpack (pack for the back)un roman d'amourlove story (story about love)
Mannerstyle, or characteristicDefining feature
fait à la mainmade by handle marché de groswholesale market
Il habite à la françaiseHe lives in the French styleune salle de classeclassroom
un enfant aux yeux bleusblue-eyed childun livre d'histoirehistory book
Defining ingredientIndispensable ingredient
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." In the examples, 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." In the examples, if you take away the blackcurrants or tomatoes, you're left with not much at all.
un sandwich au jambonham sandwichla crème de cassisblackcurrant liqueur
la soupe à l'oignononion soupla soupe de tomatestomato soup
une tarte aux pommesapple piele jus d'orangeorange juice
Impersonal expressions: Real subjectImpersonal expressions: Dummy subject
C'est bon à savoir.That's good to know.Il est bon d'étudier.It's good to study. (Studying is good)
C'est facile à faire.That's easy to do.Il est facile de le trouver.It's easy to find it. (Finding it is easy)

Additional Uses of à

The use of à is not limited to the examples above. Here are two more instances in which you will want to use this preposition.

acheter au kiloto buy by the kilogram
payer à la semaineto pay by the week
Point in time
Nous arrivons à 5h00We arrive at 5:00
Il est mort à 92 ansHe died at the age of 92

Additional Uses of de

The preposition de also has more uses than listed above. You will use it often when speaking of cause and the manner of doing something.

mourir de faimto die of / from hunger
fatigué du voyagetired from the trip
Means / manner of doing something
écrire de la main gaucheto write with the left hand
répéter de mémoireto recite from memory

Using à and de With Verbs

It is essential to understand the difference between the French prepositions à and de. The meaning of some verbs depends on whether you use à or de. For other verbs, both prepositions may be used in the same sentence.

It can be very confusing for students, but we will look at many examples and by the end of this lesson, you will be comfortable with how verbs interact with à and de.

In the following examples, abbreviations for 'someone' and 'something' are used. When using these verbs, simply replace the abbreviation with the nouns that you're speaking of.

  • qqun / s.o. - quelqu'un / someone
  • qqch / s.t. - quelque chose / something

Verbs With Different Meanings When à or de Is Used

One verb, two meanings. Each of these verbs can mean two different things depending on which preposition you use.

If you choose the wrong one, you might say "I neglected Jane" rather than "I miss Jane." It can be embarrassing and you should make sure to know the difference.

décider àto persuade, convince
décider deto decide to
demander àto ask (for permission)
demander deto ask (s.o. to do s.t.*)
jouer àto play a game or sport
jouer deto play an instrument
manquer àto miss someone
manquer deto neglect (to do s.t.)
(more about manquer)
parler àto talk to
parler deto talk about
penser àto think about (imagine)
penser deto think about (opinion)
(more about penser)
profiter àto benefit
profiter deto make the most of
venir àto happen to
venir deto have just (done s.t.)
(more about venir)

Verbs That Use Both à and de in the Same Sentence

The prepositions à and de can be used in a single sentence, often when you want someone to do something

conseiller à qqun de faire qqchadvise s.o. to do s.t.
défendre à qqun de faire qqchforbid s.o. to do s.t.
demander à qqun de faire qqchask s.o. to do s.t.
dire à qqun de faire qqchtell s.o. to do s.t.
interdire à qqun de faire qqchforbid s.o. to do s.t.
ordonner à qqun de faire qqchorder s.o. to do s.t.
permettre à qqun de faire qqchallow s.o. to do s.t.
promettre à qqun de faire qqchpromise s.o. to do s.t.
téléphoner à qqun de faire qqchcall s.o. to do s.t.

Expressions with à and de

Yet another use for à and de is in common expressions. Again, they often have similar meanings, yet they are notably different. Remember the primary difference between the prepositions:

  • à means toat, or in
  • de means of or from
à côténearby, next tode côtésideways
à côté denext to, besidedu côté defrom (direction)
à la hauteurat the levelde hauteur[5 feet] tall
il est à Parishe's in Parisil est de Parishe's from Paris
prêt* à + inf. prepared toprês* de + inf.near, on the verge of
tasse à théteacup (cup for tea)tasse de thécup of tea

* These are two different words, but because they are homophones, it makes sense to include them here for comparison.

Verbs with à or de

There are a couple of French verbs that can take ​à or de with little or no difference in meaning

commencer à / deto start
continuer à / deto continue