Expressing A Specific Quantity In French

Je Voudrais Un Morceau De Gâteau

slice of cake

This is the second part of my lesson on French quantities. First, read about "du, de la and des", how to express unspecific quantities in French, so you follow the logic progression of this lesson.

So now, let's take a look at specific quantities.

1 - Un, une = one and the numbers.

This one is quite easy. When you are talking about a whole item, use:

  • un (+ masculine word) to say one. Ex: J'ai un fils (I have one son).
  • une (+ feminine word) to say one. Ex: j'ai une fille ( I have one daughter).
  • a cardinal number, like deux, or 33678 Ex: j'ai deux filles (I have two daughters).

Note that "un and une" are also "indefinite articles" in French, meaning "a/ an" in English. 

2 - More specific quantities = expressions of quantity are followed by de or d' !

This is the part that usually confuses students. I hear these mistakes several times a day during my Skype lessons. It's definitely one of the most common French mistakes.

Expressions of quantity are followed by "de" (or "d'"), never "du, de la, de l', or des".

In English, you say "I would like a little bit OF cake", not "a little bit SOME cake" don't you?

Well, it's exactly the same thing in French.

So, in French, after an expression of quantity, we use “de” or “d'” (+ word starting with a vowel).

Ex: Un verre de vin (a glass OF wine, NOT DU, you do not say “a glass some wine”)
Ex: Une bouteille de champagne (a bottle of champagne)
Ex: Une carafe d’eau (a pitcher of water – de becomes d’ + vowel)
Ex: Un litre de jus de pomme (a liter of apple juice)
Ex: Une assiette de charcuterie (a plate of cold cuts)
Ex: Un kilo de pommes de terre (a kilo of potatoes)
Ex: Une botte de carottes (a bunch of carrots)
Ex: Une barquette de fraises (a box of strawberries)
Ex: Une part de tarte (a slice of pie).

And do not forget all the adverbs of quantity, that also specify quantities :

Ex: Un peu de fromage (a bit of cheese)
Ex: Beaucoup de lait (a lot of milk).
Ex: Quelques morceaux de lards (a few pieces of bacon).

Note that in spoken French, this “de” is very much glided, so almost silent.

OK, now that I made this very clear, I am going to confuse you even more… bear with me.

You could say "je voudrais un morceau du gâteau au chocolat". Why? Because in these cases, you are running into another French grammar rule: the "du" here is not a partitive article, meaning some, but a contraction of the definite article with "de", "de + le = du". 

It makes sense when you stay focusses on the context:

  • "Je voudrais du gâteau" = some cake, I don't care how much.
  • "Je voudrais un morceau de gâteau" = a piece of cake.
  • "Je voudrais un morceau du gâteau au chocolat" = a piece of the chocolate cake, this specific one I'm looking at right now, not the strawberry cake next to it, but that chocolate cake (Imagine Cookie Monster, it will help)…

BTW, you say "un gâteau AU chocolat" because it's made with chocolate and other ingredients, not just chocolate. The chocolate is a flavor, but there is also flour, sugar, butter. You'd say "un pâté de canard" because it's a way to prepare the duck. Remove the duck and you're left with only spices. But I digress...

So now, for the last part of this lesson, let's see what happens when the quantity is zero, and with adjectives of quantities.