Du, De La, Des… Expressing Unspecified Quantities in French

multiple hands grabbing for a piece of cake
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Expressing quantities is quite an important part of daily conversation. But in French, there seems to be a lot of little two to three letter words, all looking the same, and choosing the right one can be a real headache.

The key to understanding which one to use is to understand it's a question of the specification of quantity. A precise quantity, or a vague one. Most of the times, you won't be able to translate word by word from English, so you need to understand the French logic to choose the correct word.

Quantities in French

When expressing quantities, French uses several words:

Let's take a closer look at partitive articles.

Du, de la, de l’ - Unspecified Singular Quantity

It’s the notion of “some” in English, but we don’t always use the word “some.” 

When you are talking about a portion of one item (food, like "some bread"), or something that cannot be quantified (quality, like "some patience"), use what the French call " a partitive article":

  • du (+ masculine word)
  • de la (+ feminine word),
  • de l’ (followed by a vowel),

Examples:

  • Je voudrais de l’eau, s’il vous plait. (some water, maybe a glass, or maybe a bottle…)
  • Le professeur a de la patience. (patience ; you are not saying how much patience the teacher has, just that he/she has some)
  • Voici du gâteau. (some of it, not the whole cake)

Note: In these examples, "some" applies to a singular item. "Here is some cake", not "some cakes" which we will study below. Here, we are talking about a portion of one item, portion that is vague, not specific.

These articles "du, de la, de l'" are called "partitive articles" in French.

Important: these articles are often used after the verbs vouloir (“Je voudrais des chaussures noires”) or avoir (“J’ai des chats”) and with food (we use these all the time with food, so it's a good topic for practice.)

Des - More Than One, but Unspecified Plural Quantity

To describe an unspecified plural quantity, use “des” (both feminine and masculine)
"Des" tells you there is more than one item, but again, it’s a vague plural quantity (could be 2, could be 10,000 or more)… 

This “des” usually applies to whole items, that you could count, but decided not to.

Examples:

  • J’ai des Euros. (more than one, but I am not telling exactly how many)
  • Je vais acheter des pommes. (I’m going to buy apples. In English, we’d probably won’t use any words before "apples". Maybe some, but not necessarily. In French, you need to use “des”)
  • Elle a des amis formidables (she has (some) great friends)

In English, the word “some” is used for unspecified quantity (I would like some milk) but also as a derogative adjective (he went home with some girl). In French, you would never say “il est rentré chez lui avec de la fille”…He didn’t go home with an unspecified quantity of a girl.

So be careful, translation doesn’t always work!

Same thing goes with one of my example “elle a des amis formidables.” In English, if you say “she has some great friends” you’d be strongly implying that her other friends are not so great… So here, we’d use an article when in English you’d probably use nothing “she has great friends”. You need to use the French logic: ”she has an“ unspecific quantity plural ”friends”.

Some food items are usually referred to as singular, although they are really plural. Like 'rice'. There are many grains of rice, but it’s rare that you are counting them one by one… So rice is considered as a single ingredient, singular masculine “le riz”. If you need to count each grain, then you’d use the expression “grain de riz” – "Il y a 3 grains de riz sur la table" (there are 3 grains of rice on the table).

But, more often, you’d say something like “J’achète du riz” ( I am buying (some) rice). 

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Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "Du, De La, Des… Expressing Unspecified Quantities in French." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/du-de-la-des-1368977. Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. (2017, October 30). Du, De La, Des… Expressing Unspecified Quantities in French. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/du-de-la-des-1368977 Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "Du, De La, Des… Expressing Unspecified Quantities in French." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/du-de-la-des-1368977 (accessed November 18, 2017).