De is one of the most frequently used words in French, but it’s also one of the trickiest. You’ll see it almost everywhere. It can be both an indefinite article and a preposition. It can represent a group of something, or its absence. It can be used in positive and negative statements. It can be part of a last name.
This makes it versatile, but also hard to nail down. How can you define and categorize de? What role (well, roles) does it play in the French language?
From its many meanings and uses, to the verbs and expressions it’s a crucial part of, let’s find out what the deal is with de.
What part of speech is de in French?
With some possible exceptions (because in language, there are always exceptions), de can be either an indefinite or partitive article, or a preposition.
What are de’s different forms?
De can be written as-is, but it can change depending on the quantity or letter of the word that comes after it.
There are six ways you’ll commonly see, hear, and use de: de, de la, du, de l’, d’, and des.
De is the most common way you’ll see and use de. It can be used with statements of value, after verb infinitives, in negative statements, and more, as you’ll see later on in this article.
When it comes to negative statements, most of the time any other form of de will revert to de or d’ (if there’s a vowel immediately after it), regardless of the amount, number, or gender of the noun that follows it.
Often, when de is followed by a feminine noun, it stays de, with la added on.
C’est la crème de la crème!
When de is followed by a masculine noun, instead of using “de le” (which doesn’t exist in French), it changes to du.
Tu veux du fromage?
Want some cheese?
When you want to say “of/from/some of the” and the noun following the article starts with a vowel, you change de la or du to de l’.
Mon frère m’a donné de l’argent.
My brother gave me some money.
When an article isn’t needed, and a vowel follows de, use d’.
Le duc d’Orléans est le frère du roi.
The Duke of Orleans is the King’s brother.
Comme il avait soif, il a bu un verre d’eau.
Since he was thirsty, he drank a glass of water.
When de is used with a plural noun, it usually becomes des.
Ce bruit vient des corbeaux. Il y en a beaucoup ici.
That noise is from the crows. There are lots of them here.
Keep in mind that because de has so many meanings and uses, these rules may not always hold true.
For instance, if de is part of a phrase that refers to quantity, it will remain de, regardless of what follows, with the exception of changing to d’ if the word following it starts with a vowel.
Regarde! Il y a plein de fleurs par ici!
Beaucoup d’entre eux n’aiment pas le jazz.
Remember that if de is negative, it usually also remains de (or d’, if followed by a vowel), even if the subject it’s modifying is masculine, plural, etc.
Désolée, je n’ai pas de gâteaux pour vous.
Sorry, I don’t have any cookies for you.
Il n’a pas d’animal de compagnie.
He doesn’t have a pet.
What does de mean?
As its ubiquity suggests, de has a wide range of meanings in French. Within these, there are additional subtexts, contexts, and specific, one-off uses.
Let’s look at the most common, basic meanings of de:
Referring to things like where a person is from, moving from one point to another, something (a gift, etc.) being from someone, etc.)
Il vient de Dijon.
He’s from Dijon
Le train part de Dunkerque à 8h10.
The train leaves from Dunkerque at 8:10am.
C’est un cadeau de mon père.
It’s a gift from my father.
Because it’s used to indicate where a person is from, de or one of its variants can be part of the name of a person/entity that’s identified with, associated with, or tied to a place.
For example: Jeanne d’Arc, la Bête du Gévaudan.
2. Of (almost like in English)
Sa fille s’habille si lentement le matin. Il est toujours en retard à cause d’elle !
His daughter gets dressed so slowly in the mornings. He’s always late because of her!)
Je te sers une tasse de thé ?
Would you like a cup of tea?
Gagner, ce n’est pas le but du jeu !
Winning isn’t the goal of the game!
De or one of its variants is also a part of many noble titles and names. For instance: le Duc d’Anjou (the Duke of Anjou), la Marquise de Brinvilliers (the Marchionesse of Brinvilliers).
3. Of (to indicate ownership, a part of something)
Remember that in French, there is no “ ‘s “ that you simply add to a person or thing to indicate they own something. Instead, you have to use “de”.
C’est le cahier de mon fils.
That’s my son’s notebook.
Tout le monde aime la quiche de Bernard.
Everyone likes Bernard’s quiche.
C’est le chien d’Hélène et Marine.
That’s Hélène and Marine’s dog.
Il a tourné la poignée de porte.
He turned the doorknob
Le patient s’est blessé deux doigts de la main gauche.
The patient injured two fingers of his left hand.
4. Of (when describing measurements, length, age, etc.)
C’est une pièce de 20m2.
It’s a 20-square-meter room.
Nous cherchons un baby-sitter pour notre fils de 3 ans.
We’re looking for a babysitter for our three-year-old son.
Il y a une attente de 30 minutes.
There’s a 30-minute wait.
Pourquoi tu fais autant de bruit ? Il est 1h du matin !
Why are you making so much noise? It’s 1 o’clock in the morning!
5. Of/for in specific expressions
These include very common expressions you might already be familiar with, like:
- avoir peur de (to be afraid of) Ex: J’ai peur des araignées. (I’m afraid of spiders.)
- avoir envie de (to want (to)) Ex: J’ai envie de sortir un peu./J’ai toujours envie de chocolat. (I want to go out a bit/I always want chocolate.)
- avoir besoin de (to need). Ex: Michel et Karine ont besoin d’argent pour faire leur film. (Michel and Karine need money to make their film.)
- avoir l’habitude de (to be in the habit of/to be used to). Ex: Christine a l’habitude de boire un verre d’eau avant chaque repas. (Christine is in the habit of drinking a glass of water before each meal.)
- avoir l’intention de (to intend to). Ex: J’ai l’intention de tout raconter à la police. (I intend to tell the police everything.)
This indefinite article can be used in many ways, as in English.
Céline veut du vin.
Celine wants some wine.
Delphine a des soucis avec la police.
Delphine has some problems with the police.
Je ne veux pas sortir cet après-midi – il y a des documentaires intéressants à la télé.
I don’t want to go out this afternoon -there are some interesting documentaries on TV.
7. “not…any” (when used with ne…pas)
This may seem confusing, since de can mean “some”, but if you think about it, it makes sense; you’re just making “some” negative. Note that when using de in a negative sense, you only use the de and d’ forms. It’s never plural or used with a definite article.
Tu as volé mon portefeuille ? Bien fait pour toi ! Je n’ai pas d’argent !
You stole my wallet ? Serves you right! I don’t have any money!
J’ai beau chercher mais il n’y a pas de cornichons.
I searched good and hard but there aren’t any pickles.
De‘s meaning changes slightly when used with other negative pairs like ne…plus, for example – in that case it would mean “no” or “any”.
Il n’y a plus de chocolat.
There’s no more/There isn’t anymore chocolate.
Generally, you’ll be able to understand what de means in one of these sentence structures if you remember that, essentially, it’s the negative of “some”.
8. with (when describing physical actions)
Il marchait d’un pas incertain.
He walked with an uncertain gait.
Elle écrit de la main gauche, mais son père était ambidextre.
She writes with her left hand, but her father was ambidextrous.
9. By (authorship)
Tu as lu le dernier livre de Christelle Dabos ? J’adore sa série La Passe-miroir.
Have you read the latest book by Christelle Dabos? I just love her Mirror Visitor series.
«Parasite» de Bong Joon-ho est le premier film sous-titré à gagner l’Oscar du Meilleur Film.
‘Parasite’ by Bong Joon-Ho is the first subtitled film to win the Best Picture Oscar. OR
Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ is the first subtitled film to win the Best Picture Oscar.)
10. An “invisible” or filler article.
In most cases in French, you can’t use a noun without an article. But what if you don’t want to make that article strong or noticeable? In that case, you can use de in the sense of “some”, as a filler.
Je n’aime pas ces raisins. Ils ont des pépins.
I don’t like these grapes. They have seeds.
As you can see, there’s no need to include the indefinite article “some” here. It’s just filler.
La dame portait des lunettes.
The woman was wearing glasses.
Je vois des choses intéressantes par ici.
I see some interesting things over here.
11. An informal way to express “so”/”you don’t even know”/”unbelievable”
Ce film est d’une bêtise!
This film is so incredibly stupid !
J’ai un de ces mal de tête !
I have the worst headache!
12. “Of” in “made of”…sometimes.
Unfortunately, this is probably the most difficult use of de to master, at least as far as this list goes. The complication lies in the fact that there’s a choice to make. You have to say something is either fait en or fait de. When specifically talking about food, you have to choose between de or à.
Luckily, there is a concrete way to determine whether to use de or à when talking about what food or a specific dish is made of. This article has the best, most concise explanation I’ve ever come across.
Essentially, the author explains, you use de to talk about an ingredient that actually makes up something. For example, la farine de blé (wheat flour).
On the other hand, you use à for an ingredient that can be removed and still allow the food item to exist. Take, for example, une soupe aux choux: The soup would still exist if you took away the cabbage.
Another good example is un croissant au beurre. Although butter is an essential part of the dough of a croissant, you can have un croissant ordinaire, where the butter has been replaced with margarine.
Things get a lot harder when it comes to talking about what non-food items are made of. In this case, you would use either de or en. It’s generally said that de is more literary or old-fashioned. But as this comment thread points out, that’s not necessarily true. There are even some expressions, like un blouson de cuir or un blouson en cuir, where de or en might be used interchangeably.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy rule like the one for food, and I’ve never been able to find any kind of guidelines in particular. Personally, I just try to go for it. If I really want to insist that something is made of a certain material, I usually opt for en, which tends to be considered the best way to emphasize that. Otherwise I use de. The good news is that if I use the wrong preposition, a French person will still understand me.
13. To (in certain impersonal expressions)
We call expressions like “It’s good to…” “impersonal expressions”, since they don’t refer to a specific subject, but a general idea. In French, some of these expressions use de as the “to” part, while others use à.
When the expression starts with C’est, use à. When the expression starts with Il est, use de
Il est bon de pratiquer le français chaque jour.
It’s good to practice French every day.)
Il est difficile de choisir un parfum de glace quand on est pressé !
It’s hard to choose an ice cream flavor when you’re in a hurry!
14. a filler preposition for “expressions of quality”
French grammar doesn’t let you say something like “quelqu’un beau”. You have to put something there, and often de does the trick.
Examples include common phrases like : quelqu’un de beau, rien de neuf, quelque chose de beau. You can see more examples in this translation of the popular wedding tradition “Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.”
You might wonder why the adjective in these expressions doesn’t always seem to agree with the subject. It takes a little abstract thinking – basically, the idea is that this person or thing belongs to the concept of “beau” or “neuf”, etc.; it’s different from simply saying they are those things (in which case you would agree the adjective). You can read more about that here.
If you don’t feel comfortable using this structure, don’t worry – although you should be familiar with it, since it’s used fairly often, you can find workarounds. For example, instead of saying C’est quelqu’un de beau, you could simply say, Il est beau. Although there might be some slight connotative differences, the general meaning is the same.
15. _ and _ / __ by __/from__ to___
De kicks off expressions like:
- de mieux en mieux – better and better Ex: Elle va de mieux en mieux. (She’s doing better and better.)
- de moins en moins – less and less. Ex: Avec le temps il se sentait de moins en moins en colère. (With time, he felt less and less angry.)
- de jour en jour/de mois en mois – day by day/month by month.
- de temps en temps – from time to time. Ex: De temps en temps Sean et Claire aimaient se promener sur les quais de la Seine. (From time to time, Sean and Claire liked to take a walk along the quays of the Seine.)
16. To (when paired with certain verbs)
Some French verbs are followed by à when you want to say “to”. But this “to” role is filled by de for other verbs.
There’s no hard and fast rule for why some verbs are paired with à and others are paired with de, so unfortunately, it means you just have to memorize them.
Here is a list of the most common verbs that are paired with de:
- arrêter de
- oublier de
- essayer de
- choisir de
- s’occuper de
- refuser de
- se souvenir de
- remercier de
- projeter de
- interdire de
- s’excuser de
- décider de
- se dépêcher de
- offrir de
- finir de
“Okay,” you may be thinking, “I’ll just memorize these and all will be well.”
Well…not exactly. Some verbs, including a few you’ll find on these lists, can be followed by either à or de. This doesn’t mean you can choose whichever preposition you want, though. In these cases, the verb’s meaning changes slightly depending on which one you use.
That may sound confusing, but it’s likely that you’ve already run into a few verbs like this. For instance, parler à means “to talk to someone”, while parler de means to talk about something. Example: Je parlais à ma mère chaque jour au téléphone. vs. Je parlais de ma mère chaque jour. The first sentence means ‘I spoke to my mother every day on the phone.” And the second means “I spoke about my mother every day.”
Verbs whose meanings change when they’re followed by à or de
- arriver à /arriver de – to arrive somewhere/to succeed in doing something
- demander à /demander de – to ask someone/to ask permission to do something
- parler à /parler de – to speak to/to speak about
- venir à /venir de – to come to/to come from (or to just having finished doing something)
- profiter à /profiter de – to make a profit for someone/to benefit from something
- manquer à /manquer de – to miss (someone)/to fail/neglect to do something
- jouer à /jouer de – to play a sport or game/to play an instrument
There are at least two verbs that do make things easy, though.
You can use either à or de with these verbs and their meaning doesn’t change:
- continuer à/de (continue to…)
- commencer à /de (start to…).
So, which one to choose in these cases? As this comment thread shows, it basically comes down to what sounds better.
Instead of just à or de, some verbs take on the phrase à quelqu’un de. One of these that you’re probably familiar with is demander – demander à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose is “to ask someone to do something.”
Thomas a demandé à sa mère de lui acheter un vélo pour son anniversaire.
Thomas asked his mother to buy him a bike for his birthday.
You can learn more about the prepositions and phrases that are paired with French verbs from the links I’ve already included here, as well as this site.
How to find even more definitions of de
Keep in mind that while our list of de’s meanings is long, it’s not complete. There are several other subtle, rare, or outdated uses of de.
You can find extensive examples of the various ways de is used here. But the best way to find EVERY use of de is to look it up in an unabridged French or French-English dictionary.
My trusty print Harper Collins Robert Fifth Edition unabridged French-English/English-French Dictionary helped me a lot with research for this article, but an unabridged dictionary app could also be helpful.
Expressions with de
De is one of the most-used words in French. This means that you’ll find it in countless French phrases, expressions, and idioms. To get a sense of how many, check out the WordReference entry for de, which includes a seemingly endless list of expressions that have de in them.
In many of these expressions, de takes a back seat; it’s just a small part of what’s being said. Here’s a small list of phrases where de plays a prominent role.
- De rien – You’re welcome/It’s nothing
- couvert (e) de – covered in
- Il y en a des qui… – There’s them that …. – This is a very informal, sort of “folksy” expression. You can read more about it here.
- avoir de la chance – to be lucky.
How to memorize the meanings and uses of the word de
If you’ve read the rest of this article, you probably know the answer to that question already. De is such a ubiquitous, important, multi-faceted French word that you’ll find it in all sorts of places, used in all sorts of ways. The best way – really the only way – to learn how to use it is to keep reading, watching, writing and speaking French. You can find ways to do all of these things, for free, here.
De is an integral part of the French language that you will regularly come upon situations where you see, hear, and have to use it.
The good thing is, if you make a mistake when using it in spoken French, most French people will still understand what you meant. They’ll probably correct you, which can feel insulting, but that’s just a part of French culture. Many French people, especially of older generations, feel like they’re doing you a favor by correcting your mistakes, even really small ones.
In the case of de, it can be one of the best ways to learn to get it right. I still have certain verbs that I’ve learned are paired with de simply because of how often I was corrected when I used them with à instead. So, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. It’s rare that you’ll make a really serious, completely incomprehensible “de”-related mistake.
If you’re a studious sort of person, you could also go through our list of de’s meanings and choose to focus on each one for a certain period of time (a day, week, month, etc.). You can look up online guides, webpages, and possibly even lesson plans related to different ones. For example, you could do an online search for “French verbs that use de” or “de as from in French”.
But overall, I can say from experience that with a little bit of studying and a lot of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, using de will become very natural for you. Isn’t that de-lightful news?
Do you have a favorite expression with de? Is there a use of de that you find particularly confusing or challenging? Feel free to share in the comments.
Merci à Norm B. pour sa question sur l’usage du mot « de » en français, qui a inspiré cet article !