When referring to a noun whose quantity or amount is not specified, French speakers use the partitive article de, which conveys essentially the same meaning as some or any in English.
For example, rather than saying the equivalent of I bought cheese, French speakers always say, I bought some cheese. Rather than saying, Do you have pets? they always say, Do you have some pets? This rule cannot be ignored. If you ask for the cheese or just cheese without the partitive article, French speakers may think you’re talking about a specific amount of cheese or all the cheese in the world—either of which would cause confusion.
Forming the French partitive article
The partitive article is created by combining the preposition de with the definite article:
- For masculine nouns: de + le = du—e.g., du lait (some milk).
- For feminine nouns: de + la = de la—e.g., de la viande (some meat).
- For nouns that begin with a vowel or a silent h: de + l’ = de l’—e.g., de l’eau (some water).
- For plural nouns of either gender: de + les = des—e.g., des animaux (some animals or any animals).
Negative expressions with partitive articles
When a partitive article is used in a negative expression, de is used without the definite article—for example:
Voulez-vous de la viande? (Do you want any meat?)
Non, je ne veux pas de viande. (No, I don’t want any meat.)
Avez-vous des livres? (Do you have any books?)
Non, nous n’avons pas de livres. (No, we don’t have any books.)
There is one exception. When using the verb être (to be) in a negative expression, the partitive article is treated as normal—for example:
Ce n’est pas du jus d’orange. C’est de l’eau. (It isn’t orange juice. It’s water.)