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Hi all,

i am currently looking to improve my grammar. i like to seek advices from the gurus.

In the sentence below:

Il y a ______  petits pains au chocolat aujourd’hui?

Do i put 'des' or 'de' into the blank? My ans is de but the book answer is des

Oui. Et _______ délicieuses brioches aussi.

Do i put 'des' or 'de' into the blank? My ans is de. Same as the book.

In my book, the explanation for using de or des is :

partitive article des, used in French when one is referring to undefined quantities, is not normally used before plural adjectives.

From my understanding, petits and délicieuses are plural adjectives.  Can anyone explain if my understanding is correct?

Thanks all for reading my post.

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Hi Guy -- That's an excellent question. I'll give my point of view. You'll probably also get some slightly different opinions from some of our other, French native contributors that we have here on the forum, so it will be interesting to see their comments.

The "rule" of thumb that is commonly given to learners is that de is used instead of des before a plural adjective, unless the adjective and noun really form a 'fixed expression' rather than the adjective 'modifying' or 'describing' what is represented by the noun. So for example, a grand magasin isn't really just a "big store" -- it's actually a more specific type of store. And petit pain is a bit like this -- the writer is judging that this is really a set expression describing a specific type of bread/bun rather than "any old piece of bread that's big".

At least, that's the "textbook" explanation. As you can probably imagine, the situation is in reality a bit more complex than this:

  • de is used instead of des in this way more commonly in formal or emphatic usage rather than informal, everyday speech;
  • because of this, how likely you are to get de before a plural adjective depends in part on how common that adjective would be to occur before the noun in informal usage, or how emphatic it is-- you're more likely to get de with "formal, emphatic" adjectives like énormes, gigantesques (and indeed, I suppose, délicieuses) than "boring" everyday adjectives that essentially always come before the noun like petit and grand;
  • the question of whether an adjective + noun form a "fixed expression" is obviously open to some interpretation/difference of opinion between speakers.

But, in general, you probably will find the pattern mentioned in your two examples-- but I think it wouldn't be impossible to hear "des délicieuses brioches" used informally by native speakers, and certainly there are other examples e.g. de(s) gros problèmes where you'll readily find variation.


nothing more to say.

if you have a doubt between "de" and "des",  use "des".

It's more weird (maybe weirder ??) to hear "de" instead of "des" than the opposite and in this case  "de" could be understand as "deux" (two).

Isn't there a rule that when it's negative you use "de"?  "il n'y a pas de pains..."

yes, but not exactly.

the right form is "Il n'y a pas de pain": it's not a plural.

This rule about the negative form is sometimes unclear. As it's a negative form, we don't have something, so the question is : don't we have one thing ? or don't we have several things ?  In grammar exercises, very often the two are right, but it's unclear.

Dear Neil,

Thank you very much for the detailed explanation. i guess i will need to look into some french fixed expression to get a geez of understanding it.


Here's some examples in English that might help you get the concept. Consider:

(1a) a great holiday

(1b) my great grandfather

(2a) blue boxes

(2b) blue cheeses

Notice how in the (a) examples, the adjective is basically taking on its "normal" function. In (1a), the holiday is being described as "great", just as you could describe pretty much anything else as being "great"-- a trip, a day, the weather, a football match... But in (1b), the word "great" means something very specific-- in effect, it forms a 'fixed expression' with "grandfather" and there are very few other possibilities instead of "grandfather" that you could use for "great" to keep this specific meaning (essentially, a few other kinship terms: "great grandmother", "great aunt"...).

In (2), we have a similar situation: in (2a), "blue" is used with its ordinary, boring meaning to describe a colour and instead of "boxes", you could put pretty much any other noun that can take on a colour and "blue" would keep essentially the same meaning. But in (2b), "blue" has a much more restricted meaning of "cultivated with mould", that it can basically only take on with the noun "cheese" -- so again, "blue cheese" basically forms a 'fixed expression'. In the case of petit pain, to a French speaker (or at least, some French speakers -- I dare to say not all), the word petit is taking on a 'special' use, a bit like the "blue" in "blue cheese". So this is why des is used in your example.

And so in French, the idea is that the cases like (a) where the adjective takes on its "ordinary" meaning and could be used with a large variety of nouns, then when such an adjective comes before the noun, de would be used instead of des. In cases like (b), where the adjective goes with that specific noun to form a special 'fixed expression', then des is used.

One way of looking at it: if the adjective + noun are listed as a "separate entry in the list" in your vocab book, like "grand magasin", then it's probably a 'fixed expression'.

Now, you might also come back to me and say, "well, actually, I'm not sure about your examples above. I can see that 'blue cheese' is sort of a special use of the word 'blue', but sometimes the mould on the cheese is actually blue.". And that's also a point of difficulty: you will find disagreement among writers as to whether a given phrase constitutes a 'fixed expression' so that it warrants des rather than de.


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