When to Use 'À' vs. 'De' in French

Learn How to Use These Common French Prepositions

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Prepositions are words that connect two parts of a sentence. In French, they usually go in front of nouns or pronouns to show a relationship between that noun/pronoun and another word that precedes it.

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 same thing. Knowing when to use which preposition is a common source of confusion for many French students, but this lesson will teach you the difference. By the end of it, you should be comfortable with how verbs interact with à and de.

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 to understand each better, it is best to compare them.

À De
Location or destination Starting point or origin
Je vais à Rome I'm going to Rome partir de Nice to leave from (out of) Nice
Je suis à la banque I'm at the bank Je suis de Bruxelles I'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 away... ...de moi ...from me
Possession Possession / belonging (Learn more)
un ami à moi a friend of mine le livre de Paul Paul's book
Ce livre est à Jean This is Jean's book le café de l'université the university café
Purpose or use Contents / description
une tasse à thé teacup (cup for tea) une tasse de thé cup of tea
une boîte à allumettes matchbox (box for matches) une boîte d'allumettes box (full) of matches
un sac à dos backpack (pack for the back) un roman d'amour love story (story about love)
Manner, style, or characteristic Defining feature
fait à la main made by hand le marché de gros wholesale market
Il habite à la française He lives in the French style une salle de classe classroom
un enfant aux yeux bleus blue-eyed child un livre d'histoire history book
Defining ingredient - Food Indispensable ingredient - Food
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 following 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 to "of" or "from." In the following examples, if you take away the blackcurrants or tomatoes, you're left with not much at all.
un sandwich au jambon ham sandwich la crème de cassis blackcurrant liqueur
la soupe à l'oignon onion soup la soupe de tomates tomato soup
une tarte aux pommes apple pie le jus d'orange orange juice
Impersonal expressions: Real subject Impersonal 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.

Measurement
acheter au kilo to buy by the kilogram
payer à la semaine to pay by the week
Point in time
Nous arrivons à 5h00 We arrive at 5:00
Il est mort à 92 ans He 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.

Cause
mourir de faim to die of/from hunger
fatigué du voyage tired from the trip
Means/manner of doing something
écrire de la main gauche to write with the left hand
répéter de mémoire to recite from memory

Using À and De With Verbs

It is essential to understand the difference between the French prepositions à and de because 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.

Verbs With Different Meanings When À or DIs Used

In French, a single verb can have two meanings depending on the preposition. If you choose the wrong one, you might say "I neglected Jane" rather than "I miss Jane." Doing so can lead to misunderstandings and you should make sure to know the difference. The following table shows specifics verbs that change meanings through prepositions.

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

Verbs That Use Both À and Din 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 qqch advise s.o. to do s.t.
défendre à qqun de faire qqch forbid s.o. to do s.t.
demander à qqun de faire qqch ask s.o. to do s.t.
dire à qqun de faire qqch tell s.o. to do s.t.
interdire à qqun de faire qqch forbid s.o. to do s.t.
ordonner à qqun de faire qqch order s.o. to do s.t.
permettre à qqun de faire qqch allow s.o. to do s.t.
promettre à qqun de faire qqch promise s.o. to do s.t.
téléphoner à qqun de faire qqch call s.o. to do s.t.

Expressions With À and D

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 "to," "at," or ​"in"
  • de means "of" or "from"
à côté nearby, next to de côté sideways
à côté de next to, beside du côté de from (direction)
à la hauteur at the level de hauteur [5 feet] tall
il est à Paris he's in Paris il est de Paris he's from Paris
prêt* à + inf. prepared to prês* de + inf. near, on the verge of
tasse à thé teacup (cup for tea) tasse de thé cup of tea

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

Verbs With À or D

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

commencer à / de to start
continuer à / de to continue