Uses of the French preposition à
In French, there are about 20 different uses of the preposition à and its variations. Some of these are sophisticated and of little use in everyday conversation; others are very common and must be totally mastered if you want to converse in French fluently and correctly.
We have already seen the use of à to describe a feature or a characteristic of an object:
un bateau à voile (a sailboat)
un bateau à moteur (a motorboat)
un bateau à vapeur (a steamboat)
un serpent à sonnette (a rattle snake)
This construction in very commonly used in technical French, as in:
un moteur à combustion interne (an internal combustion engine)
une voiture à traction avant (a front-wheel drive automobile)
un médicament à libération prolongée (a sustained release drug)
Using the French preposition à “for”
Now, let’s look at a close but different use of this preposition. Compare the following examples:
un bateau à moteur (a motor boat)
une huile à moteur (a motor oil)
There is an important nuance here. The first example tells us that the boat contains or is driven by a motor. This is a feature of the boat. On the other hand, in the second example, we see that the oil is to be used “for the purpose” or “in” the motor.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but the nuance is important and must be understood if you want to convey certain subtleties in French.
The preposition à with nouns
This is a very common pattern. Look at these examples:
un verre à eau (a water glass)
un verre à vin (a wine glass)
une cuiller à thé (a teaspoon)
un couteau à pain (a bread knife)
un moule à tarte (a pie dish)
la planche à dessin (the drawing board)
la tour à bureaux (the office building)
In all these examples we see that the object is being described in terms of “for” or its use or purpose.
The preposition à with verbs
This is also a very common pattern in French, as in the following examples:
la salle à manger (the dining room)
la chambre à coucher (the bedroom)
la table à langer (the changing table)
une planche à repasser (the ironing board)
la machine à coudre (the sewing machine)
Look at how this construction is used in the title of a well-known song by Quebec singer, Jean Leloup:
Le monde est à pleurer
The world is to cry for
One could also say things like:
Est-ce que c’est bon à manger?
Is it good to eat?
Ne vous inquiétez pas. L’eau est bonne à boire.
Don’t worry. The water is good for drinking.
This construction is found in the common expression:
C’est à prendre ou à laisser.
Take it or leave it
When listening to French, pay special attention to this key pattern. You will hear it everywhere. After a while it should become second nature, and you will be able to use it spontaneously in French conversations.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.