French The Indefinite Article

Overview

In English we have the indefinite article a, which changes to an in front of a word that starts with a vowel. In the plural we say either some, any or nothing at all. In French, the indefinite articles (articles indéfinis) are un (masculine singular), une (feminine singular) and des (plural for both genders). We use the indefinite article in the following cases:

  • to talk about something non-specific
  • in an introductory capacity to mention something for the first time in a text
France, Paris, Smiling woman standing on a bridge with the Eiffel tower in the background

An indefinite article is used to define an unspecified/unquantified noun. In English, indefinite articles translate to “a/an,” “some,” or “any.” Just like definite articles, the form of the indefinite article that you choose depends on the gender and number of the person or object that you are referring to.

Indefinite ArticleLabelExampleTranslation
unMasculine singularun chapeaua hat
uneFeminine singularune chemisea man’s shirt
desPlural for “some”des chaussuressome shoes

Indefinite articles in negative sentences

We learned previously that in order to negate a sentence, you have to sandwich the “ne” and “pas” around the verb. Notice the change in the indefinite article in these examples of affirmative and negative sentences.

Affirmative: J’ai une cravate.                        I have a tie.

Negative: Je n’ai pas de cravate.        I don’t have any tie.

Affirmative: J’ai des bottes.                    I have some boots.

Negative: Je n’ai pas de bottes.         I don’t have any boots.


Affirmative:
 J’ai une écharpe.                       I have a scarf.

Negative: Je n’ai pas d’écharpe.        I don’t have any scarf.

In a negative sentence, the indefinite article always changes to de to signify the English word, “any” (even when the noun is plural). 

Notes:

  • Just like definite articles, you must identify the gender and number of the word that you are defining by an indefinite article. For example, if you want to say “I have an exam tomorrow,” you must first determine the gender of the word exam, or examen, in French. When you learn that examen is masculine singular, you know that the sentence should be translated to, J’ai un examen demain.
  • When des is used in front of a noun that begins with a vowel, the –s on the end is pronounced with a /z/ sound to create a liaison between the indefinite article and the following word.

Highlighted Author:

France, Paris, Smiling woman standing on a bridge with the Eiffel tower in the background
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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
Reading:
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
Listening:
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.