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when should I use à, au, en?  what are their meanings?

am I correct to say that au is masculine whereas en is feminine?

why is it that I have to say "Hugo va au Mexique" and not "Hugo va à Mexique"?

 

please elaborate. thanks!!

 

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You're mixing several things together.

au means à le. So you say, Je vais au cinéma but not Je vais à le cinéma.
There is no feminine version. à la exists. Je vais à la plage

 

à is often translated by to (but not only). Ce stylo appartient à Paul : This pen belongs to Paul

 

en is more tricky and can be translated by several prepositions or using particular constructions (e.g. gerund) depending on the context

En  avant : forward

En  voyant son visage : seeing his face

Il est allé en Espagne : He went to Spain.


Just following on from what Erwan has commented:

 

It's almost true to say that "au" is masculine and "en" is feminine when they are used with the name of a country. (As Erwan says, in other cases, they have essentially separate uses.)

 

In fact, what generally happens is:

- en is used before feminine countries (and in fact some feminine names of departments, counties, US states...), hence en Espagne, en France, en Italie...

- en is also generally used before any country beginning with a vowel, e.g. en Irak, en Afghanistan

- au is generally used before other masculine countries, e.g. au Canada, au Rouanda, au Mexique

 

Or, another way to think about it:

 

- country names are generally always used with the definite article (le/la)

- au is the (mandatory) equivalent of à + le, as Erwan says

- before a country name, en is a special word that stands in for à la (which is only used before a country name when you're referring to the people of that country-- you may want to ignore this case for now for the sake of simplicity)

 

So hopefully that answers your question about "Mexique": au is used rather than à, because you need to include the article "le" (cf "Le Mexique est un beau pays" -- you can't leave out the "le" in French), and it turns out that au is the equivalent of à + le.

 

There are a few "corner cases", e.g. names of masculine countries that are also islands, such as Cuba, don't generally use the article. So you would say à Taiwan, à Cuba... And there is variation in usage before region names such as French departments. But by and large, the above should be most of what you need to know.

How about if we're talking about months, dates, days and seasons?

So since au = à + le and en = à + la, am I correct to say that au & en means at/in the.. ? Also, am I right that another meaning for au is "to" and en means "on"  (for example, Je suis en vacances du 10 au 25 février means I am on vacation from 10 to 25 February)?

 

Is it that months are feminine so we say "en décembre"? Why is is "au" used in this case: Au mois de juillet?

 

Your example with the vacation is right.

We say en décembre but au mois de juillet because mois is masculine.

I would avoid making a general association of en = à la: this applies to COUNTRIES (and possibly in one or two other cases, e.g. feminine states etc), but not generally across the language

 

The preposition en is a little bit weird: it used to be the general word in French for "in". So, once upon a time, people would say e.g. "en la boîte" to mean "in the box". But what has happened is that over time, en has gradually been replaced by other prepositions (typically dans, but not necessarily), and in the few cases where it hasn't been replaced, its syntax is often a little odd compared to other prepositions (principally, it's rare to use en with an article, so e.g. you could say "mettre en soute" to mean "put in the hold", but not "*mettre en la soute", but with other prepositions the article would be required).

 

So in other words: don't try and "generalise" the use of en to random places. Learn just those cases where you find it's actually used and only use it in those places.

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