The Partitive Article

French also has a unique class of articles, known as the partitive, which is used when the exact quantity of an item is not known. It conveys the sense of “some” or “any.”

In French, however, the partitive article is required to convey proper meaning. It is known as the partitive because it describes only a part of the object and not the object as a whole. Whenever the sense of “some” or “any” is inferred in a sentence, the partitive article must be used.

The partitive is formed by combining de and the definite article.

  • de + le = du: when used before singular nouns with masculine gender

  • de + la = de la: when used before singular nouns with feminine gender

  • de + l' = de l': when used before singular nouns that begin in a vowel or silent h

  • de + les = des: when used before plural nouns of either gender

Suppose you're talking to a friend who invites you over to her place for coffee. You hope she has milk, so you could ask any of the following in English:

Do you have any milk?

Do you have milk?

Do you have some milk?

Because you are only referring to a small amount of all the milk available in the world, “some” is meant, so the partitive is used in French, as follows: As-tu du lait?

Suppose you are getting together with your friend to bake a triple-layer cake. Wondering if she has the milk that the recipe calls for, you want to ask, “Do you have the milk?” Because milk is being referred to in a specific sense, the definite article is used, rather than the partitive article: As-tu le lait? You aren't asking whether your friend has some milk, or any milk, or enough milk — you're asking whether she has the specific amount of milk that the recipe calls for.

Pay particular attention to the amount when choosing which article to use. If you use a definite article when the partitive is required, native French speakers may become terribly confused, trying to figure out what you mean.

Partitive Article in Negative Expressions

As you may recall from Chapter 2, ne…pas can be used to make an expression negative. It is the equivalent of the English word “not.” There are other ways to make a statement negative (see Chapter 8).

When the partitive is used in a negative expression, de appears alone, without the definite article. Whether the noun being used in the partitive is masculine or feminine, the only word appearing before it will be de.

<tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colwidth="50%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colwidth="50%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <tbody> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>Masculine: As-tu du lait?</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>Do you have some milk?</p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>Non, je n'ai pas de lait</emphasis>.</p></td> <td><p>No, I don't have any milk.</p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>Feminine: As-tu de la farine?</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>Do you have any flour?</p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>Non, je n'ai pas de farine</emphasis>.</p></td> <td><p>No, I don't have any flour.</p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>Naturally, there's an exception. When using <emphasis>être</emphasis>, the verb “to be” the proper partitive article is always used, whether the sentence is negative or not. Say your friend asks if there is water in your glass. You answer: <emphasis>Non, ce n'est pas de l'eau. C'est de la bière</emphasis>. (No, it's not water. It's beer.) In the negative, notice that <emphasis>de l'eau</emphasis> includes both <emphasis>de</emphasis> and the definite article: The partitive is used in full because it appears with the verb être. 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