How To Use Partitive “de” In Spoken French

I believe that a proven strategy for achieving fluency and accuracy in spoken French is to concentrate on the very small number of words and grammatical structures that account for the majority of words of the spoken language.

Near the very top of any list of such common words is the preposition de and its variants du, de l’, de la and des. This tiny word is very common because it has so many different uses.

One use of de that all students of French have studied is something called the partitive article. Look at the following examples:

Voulez-vous du pain avec votre repas ? (Would you like some bread with your meal?)
Nous avons de l’eau, de la bière, du jus ou du café. (We have water, beer, juice or coffee.)
Hier nous avons mangé des moules et des frites. (Yesterday we ate some mussels and french fries.)
Avez-vous du temps pour moi? (Do you have any time for me?)

You notice that de, in its various forms, is used to convey the idea of an indefinite quantity of certain things. Most of the time, these things are not countable.  In English, we often use the words “some”, “any” or just leave out any modifier. For example, “Do you have fresh fish?” would be  translated as “Avez-vous du poisson frais ?’

One way to learn how to use this French usage is to focus on those key verbs that call up this usage of de. They include : vouloir, boire, manger, faire, acheter, avoir, mettre, prendre, entendre, prévoir Here are some examples:

Il veut du pain. (He wants some bread.)
Je bois seulement de l’eau. (I drink only water.)
On mange du poulet ce soir. (We are eating chicken this evening.)
Je fais de la musique demain. (I’m playing music tomorrow.)
Ils ont de l’argent. (They have money.)
Vous avez mis du temps à répondre. (You took your time before answering.)
On a entendu du bruit. (We heard some noise.)

Pay special attention to constructions with il y a and c’est.

Il y aura de la pluie demain toute la journée. (There will be rain tomorrow.)
Ça, c’est du beau travail. (That is some good work.)

Here is a very common idiom that uses this construction:

Mettre de l’eau dans son vin (literally, put water in one’s wine or “to make a compromise”)

Note that when the verb is used negatively with ne…pas, most of the time only the form de is used, as in.

Il ne veut pas de pain. (He does not want any bread.)
Je ne bois pas d’eau. (I don’t drink water.)
On ne mange pas de poulet ce soir. (We are not eating chicken this evening.)
Je ne fais pas de musique demain. (I won’t be playing music tomorrow.)
Ils n’ont pas d’argent. (They don’t have any money.)

Be aware that the common mistake here of English-speakers here is to say things like:
*Ils n’ont pas de l’argent.
*Je ne fais pas de la musique demain.

(The * in linguistics indicates that the example is considered erroneous”)

This de only construction is also used with plus, beaucoup, peu, moins and autant, as in:

Il y avait beaucoup de gens. (There were many people.)
J’ai un peu d’argent. (I have a bit of money.)
Il a moins de temps maintenant. (He has less time now.)
Elle a autant d’enfants que ma soeur. (She has as many children as my sister.)

So far this is rather straightforward, although many advanced speakers of French often still make mistakes.  Please do not say things like:
*Il y avait beaucoup des gens.
*J’ai un peu de l’argent.

Things can get complicated.  Consider the following example:

Aimez-vous le café ? (Do you like coffee?)

Notice how French uses the definite article le and café to mean “coffee” in a generic sense and English uses no article in front of  “coffee.”  You would not say in French “*Aimez-vous du café ?”

However, the following example is very common:

Aimeriez-vous du vin / de l’eau / du pain avec votre repas ? (Would you like wine / water / bread with your meal?)

Why can we use the partitive construction with the verb “aimer”? The answer lies in the conditional form “aimeriez-vous” which here implies the verb “avoir” or “to have.” In other words, the questions is really of the form, “Aimeriez-vous avoir…” and therefore takes the partitive form.

There are other complications of the partitive form, especially in the negative construction. I’ll look at them in further posts.

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