List of French prepositions: compound prepositions

On the previous pages, the various prepositions that we looked at essentially consisted of a single word. (We actually sneaked in a couple of cases where two prepositions are arguably combined, such as d'après, which we will gloss over.)

But in French as in English, there are a number of compound prepositions (termed complex prepositions by some authors): essentially "fixed" expressions consisting of several words that behave together as though they were a single preposition. Whilst consisting of multiple words, they behave like "normal" prepositions in that:

  • they generally have a fixed form;
  • they can often be transitive or intransitive.

Fixed form

Notice that usually in French, we don't end up with the combination de moi. For example, to say a book belonging to me, we would say un de mes livres rather than un livre de moi, even though, for example, un livre de Jean is perfectly grammatical.

On the other hand, with compound prepositions, the expression remains even where this means introducing such unusual combinations of words. For example, au lieu de... means instead of. We might then logically have expected instead of him to be *à son lieu. But in fact, the form is au lieu de lui. Similarly, opposite me is en face de moi, and not en/dans ma face.

Transitive vs intransitive use

Recall that many single-word prepositions can be followed directly by an object (transitive) or used without the object actually expressed:

la maison derrière la forêt = the house behind the forest
la maison derrière = the house behind
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The majority of what we term "compound prepositions" end in the word de. The word de is used when the preposition takes an object. But in many cases, the preposition can be used intransitively with de is removed. For example:

la maison à côté de la forêt = the house next to the forest
la maison à côté = the house next to it, the adjacent house
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There are just one or two exceptions to this rule which we indicate with an asterisk (*) in the table below.

List of common compound prepositions in French

Here, then, is a list of common expressions that we may consider to be compound prepositions.

French prepositionCommon English equivalentComments
à l'arrière debehind, (located) at the back ofThere is some overlap between these expressions, and both can indicate physical location. But en arrière de is also used to indicate "figurative" location, e.g. il est en arrière des autres élèves = he's fallen behind the other pupils
en arrière debehind, to the back of
autour dearound 
en bas deat the foot/bottom of, down below 
à cause debecause of, due to 
compte tenu degiven, in view of 
compte non tenu deregardless of 
à compter deas of, taking effect from 
à côté denext to 
au-deˆà dethis side ofArchaic.
en dehors deoutside, beyond, except 
au-delà debeyond 
en dépit dedespite, regardless of 
au-dessous de, en dessous debelow, beneath 
au-dessus deabove 
par-dessousunder(neath)Indicating movement
par-dessusover, over the top of
par-deversin front of; in the possession ofExtremely rare, used in legal contexts.
étant donnégiven 
en échange dein exchange for 
à l'extérieuroutisde 
à l'exception de*except, excepting, with the exception of 
en face deopposite, facing 
face àfaced with, in view of 
faute de*save, barring, for want of 
en fonction de*depending on, according to, with respect to 
à force dethrough, by dint of 
grâce àbecause of, thanks to 
en haut deat the top of, up
à l'instar dein keeping with 
à l'intérieur deinside 
au lieu de*instead of 
lors de*during, at the time of 
à même*directly on...; straight from...Used in a few expressions such as à même le sol = directly on the ground, à même le pot = straight from the jar
au moyen de*using, by means of 
au niveau de*regarding, -wise 
de parthroughout; as a result of 
à partapart (from)Can be used either prepositionally or postpositionally.
à partir destarting from, from ... onwards, as of 
en plus dein addition to 
par rapport àregarding, with respect to 
au ras de*, à ras delevel with, just skimming 
au sein dewithin, at the heart of 
en sus dein addition toOld-fashioned: en plus de is the modern equivalent.
à traversthrough 
au travers dethroughFiguratively, passer au travers (de) often has the meaning of "escape", "slip through".
en travers deacross, crossways through 
vis-à-vis defacing; vis-às-vis, regardingNotice that in French, de is present.
y comprisincluding 

"Semi-compound" prepositions

Despite my vitriolic attempt to make a distinction between "genuine" compound prepositions that have certain preposition-like features and "any old" expression, I'm now going to include a list of a few expressions that don't quite fit the definition of compound prepositions, but appear to have some some features of compound expressions:

  • some may have transitive vs intransitive use (à la place can be used to intransitively to mean "instead");
  • it is marginally possible to use some of them as "fixed" expressions (e.g. au sujet de lui is marginally possible, although à son sujet is more usual);
  • some contain a word which is otherwise non-existent or rare outside the expression in question (the word insu essentially does not exist outside the expression à l'insu de, à son insu etc);
  • for practical purposes it's convenient to consider some as "prepositions" because they're common expressions with similar meanings to other "genuine" prepositions.
French expressionCommon English equivalentComments
à l'égardregarding, in respect ofThe expression à cet égard is also used to mean "in that regard", "on that matter".
à son insuunbeknown to 
par l'intermédiaire dethrough (the intermediary) ofHowever, through him/her would usually be par son intermédiaire
à l'issue defollowing, at the end of 
de la part deon behalf of, on the part ofde sa part = on his/her behalf, on his/her part
à la place dein (the) place ofà sa place = in his place
au sujet deabout, concerning, on the matter ofà ce sujet = on that matter; However, for at least some speakers, it is grammatical to say à sujet de lui = about him, although à son sujet is more common.
à titre deby way of, for the purposes of 
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