How To Use Determiners And Plural Nouns In French

Articles and determiners with French nouns

If you want to speak French fluently and correctly, I believe that you have to study grammar. Now, most people find grammar very dry and boring-actually so do I-because it tends to be very abstract and often uses terminology that is hard to understand.

Today I want to look at a tricky aspect of French grammar that is  a source of many mistakes. We’ll be looking at an aspect of working with French plural nouns.

This is not about how to form plural nouns. That is a major subject in itself. Here I want to look at how to work with plurals. This is probably not the most exciting topic on earth, but it is very important in terms of speaking accuracy in French.

Here is a sentence in French and its translation:

Je vois la voiture blanche.
I see the white car.

We notice in passing that French typically puts the adjective “blanche” after the noun “voiture” whilst English puts the adjective “white” in front of  “car.” Notice also that the determiner or article “la” tells us that voiture is grammatically feminine, therefore the adjective has to be “blanche” and not “blanc.”  Finally, both determiners “la” and “the” tell us that the speaker is looking at a specific or definite car.

Let’s make the object plural:

Je vois les voitures blanches
I see the white cars.

In English the only thing that changes is “car” that adds an “s” to become “cars” which is pronounced with the -z sound at the end. In French, on the other hand, an “s” is added to “voiture” and “blanche” and the “la” become “les.”

Right away, we notice how French tends to be more complicated than English because more words have to be changed. But there’s more. In French, adding the -s to the noun or the the adjective does not change the pronunciation. In other words, “voiture blanche” and “voitures blanches” sound exactly the same.

How then is the plural sounded in spoken French? It’s in the article or determiner “les.”

In English, the plural noun is normally indicated by a change of  both the spelling and the pronunciation of the noun itself. In French the plural noun is indicated by a change of spelling and not by a change of pronunciation. Whereas in English the determiner “the” does not change, in French the determiner “la” changes to “les.”

The key concept that must be grasped here is that the French determiner carries much more weight or information than its English counterpart.  It tells us whether a noun is singular or plural, female or male (when singular) and definite or indefinite. In English, the determiner  “the” tells us only that the noun is definite.

Let’s look at the same examples in the indefinite form:

Je vois une voiture blanche.
I see a white car.
Je vois des voitures blanches.
I see some white cars. / I see white cars.

Again we see the same pattern. The French determiner “une” tells us that the noun is singular, feminine and indefinite. The English determiner “a” tells that the noun is singular and indefinite.

In the plural, the French “une” becomes “des.”  In English, something interesting happens. The “a” becomes “some” or, as an alternative, it disappears altogether.

English can also use “any” where French uses “des.”

Do you see any white cars?
Voyez-vous des voitures blanches?

This is where things start to get really interesting and a bit tricky. For starters, I should point out that a common mistake of English-speakers learning French is to try to pronounce the final -s of “des voitures blanches.” Similarly, French-speakers learning English will tend to not pronounce the s of “cars.”

A comparison with articles and determiners in English

A major cause of difficulties for English-speakers in French is the fact that English very often drops the determiner of plural indefinite nouns. Here are some examples:

I like cats but not dogs.
We’re having friends over for dinner.
Jobs are hard to come by these days.
He has red hair, blue eyes and freckles.
On the safari we saw lions, elephants, giraffes and tigers.

In French these examples all require a determiner because, remember, some of the essential information about the noun lies in the determiner.  But there is a little wrinkle here.  In French one can choose between “les” or “des” depending on the context.  When speaking generically, e.g. cats, dogs, jobs, one usually uses  “les.”

Here are the above examples in French:

J’aime les chats mais pas les chiens.
Nous recevons des amis à dîner.
Les emplois sont difficiles à trouver en ce moment.
Il a les cheveux roux, les yeux bleus et des tâches de rousseur.
Pendant le safari on a vu des lions, des éléphants, des girafes et des tigres.

Signs, advertising copy and newspaper headlines in English very often will drop the determiners with plural nouns. It happens less frequently in French.

All visitors must report to security.
Tous les visiteurs doivent se présenter au poste de contrôle.
All computers and printers are now 50% off.
Tous les ordinateurs et les imprimantes sont réduits à 50 %.
Taxpayers protest new taxes.
Les contribuables s’en prennent aux nouvelles taxes.

Here is an example of a French newspaper title that drops the determiners in front of plural nouns:

Le nouveau budget met à contribution banques et pétroliers.
The new budget hits banks and oil companies.

In English this dropping of the article is not limited to plural nouns.  It is quite widespread in forms like:

Breakfast is served between 6 and 9 AM.
Le petit déjeuner est servi entre 6 et 9 heures.
Dessert is apple pie.
Le dessert est une tarte aux pommes
They lost hope.
Ils ont perdu l’espoir.

When speaking of countries, English does not use a determiner. French does. Here are some examples:

Italy and Portugal tied the game.
L’Italie et le Portugal ont fait match nul.
Canada and France are important trading partners.
Le Canada et la France sont des partenaires commerciaux importants.

In this last example, notice how “des” is used where there is nothing in English.

How is all this important in terms of learning to speak fluently?  Although I should stress that there is more to this question than what we have covered here, there are three things that you should retain:

1. Pay special attention to determiners when listening to French. They are important for understanding whether you are dealing with a singular or a plural noun.

2. Always learn the determiner  and its various forms with the noun because this determiner contains essential information.

3. Watch out for those situations where English tends to drop indefinite determiners of plural nouns. In the vast majority of cases, French retains these determiners. In case of doubt, use the determiner. You will rarely be wrong.

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