‘The’ and ‘A’ in French (un, une, la, le, l’, les and des)


This article looks at the words for ‘the’ and ‘a’ in French, namely:

  • un and une for ‘a’
  • le, la, l’, les for ‘the’

I also explain the word ‘des’ in French.

Knowing which one to use can appear a little confusing at first. It is however surprisingly straightforward to know which one to use.

By the end of this article you should be able to know when to use which. I also set out guidance for you on how to pronounce each.

The French words for ‘a’ (un and une)

In French there are two words for the word ‘a’, namely ‘un’ and ‘une’. Essentially:

  • You use ‘un’ for masculine nouns
  • You use ‘une’ for feminine nouns

Take a look at the following examples of usage:

  • un voyage = a trip/a journey (= masculine noun)
  • un appartement = an appartment/a flat (= masculine noun)
  • une maison = a house (= feminine noun)
  • une heure = an hour (= feminine noun)

You will see that all the masculine nouns use ‘un’ and all the feminine nouns ‘une’.

If you are wondering why some nouns are masculine and some are feminine, you may wish to look at my guide to French noun gender. Understanding noun gender is important for applying the rules set out in this article.

What about pronunciation of un and une?

It is very difficult to describe the differences in pronounciation in English. Having said that, ‘Un’ is pronounced more or less as ‘uh(n)’ whereas ‘une’ is pronounced like ‘unn’. With ‘un’ the emphasis is on the start of the word whereas with ‘une’ the emphasis is on the ‘n’.

The word for ‘the’ (le, la, l’ and les)

In French when you are talking about a singular noun. A singular noun is one thing, one person, one place, etc. In this situation the word for ‘the’ is either le, la or ‘l’. Essentially:

  • l’ is used for all nouns which begin with a vowel or h regardless of gender
  • le is used for all other masculine nouns
  • la is used for all other feminine nouns

Let’s take a look at the following examples:

  • le voyage = the trip/the journey (= masculine singular noun)
  • l’appartement = the flat/the appartment (= singular noun starting with a vowel)
  • la maison = the house (= feminine singular noun)
  • l’heure = the hour (= singular noun starting with the letter ‘h’)

Hopefully the above examples will help you to know which one to use for different words.

What about pronunciation of le, la and l’?

Le is pronounced like ‘luh’ whereas ‘la’ is pronounced ‘la’ (more or less like an English speaker would probably expect).

When you want to say l’ do not treat it as a separate word. L’appartement, for example, is spoken as if it is one word, so is pronounced lappartement.

Use ‘les’ for ‘the’ for plural nouns

When you want to use ‘the’ for a plural noun you always use les. A plural noun is more than one thing, person, place, etc.

You use les for all plural nouns regardless of whether the noun is masculine or feminine.

This is the case regardless of whether the noun is masculine or feminine.

You also usually add s to the end of the noun.

Examples:

  • les voyages = the trips/the journeys (= plural masculine
  • les appartements = the flats/the appartments (= plural masculine)
  • les maisons = the houses (= feminine plural
  • les heures = the hours (= feminine plural)

Sometimes you add x instead of s to the end of nouns. Most commonly this is for nouns which end in u. Let’s’ look at the word ‘bureau’ (office) as an example, which is a masculine word. Essentially

  • le bureau = the office
  • les bureaux = the offices

Les is pronounced more or less like ‘ley’ with a couple of exceptions. Where ‘les’ is following by a vowel or a word starting with ‘h’, the pronounciation changes to ‘lez’.

What about ‘des’?

The French word ‘des’ is used with plural nouns to mean ‘some’ in the sense of ‘several’. It can also mean ‘from the’ or ‘of the’, but only for plural nouns. Take a look at the following examples:

  • Des voyages = some (several) trips or journeys or of the trips/journeys or from the trips/journeys
  • Des appartements = some (several) appartments or of the appartments or from the appartments

As you can see from the above examples, some possible meanings may not be logical. You need to make sure that you look at all the possible meanings to choose the one that makes the most sense in English.

The French often prefer to use ‘plusieurs’ meaning ‘several’, so ‘plusieurs appartements’ means ‘several appartments’.

As regards pronunciation of ‘des’, it is pronounced more or less like ‘dey’. However, if ‘des’ is followed by a vowel or a word starting with ‘h’, the pronuciation changes to ‘dez’.

Further information

Hopefully the above has helped you to understand for words for the and a in French.

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