French keyword: 'de'

The word de has been identified as the most frequently occurring word of French ([MITKOV2003:701]). It has multiple uses and translations.

Form and pronunciation

Before a word beginning with a vowel sound, de is generally written d' and pronounced [d].

In such cases, it is generally analysed as being 'chained' on to the initial position of the following syllable. Before a consonant, the schwa is often 'deleted' in the spoken language (though lip rounding may be retained as a remnant of the schwa: see [BARNESKAVITSKAYA2002]), and it is generally pronounced [d] before a voiced consonant and [t] before a voiceless consonant (pas de bas [pad ba]; pas de chaise [pat ʃɛz]). Before [k]) (as in pas de café), it may become a type of dental click. In the presence of an h aspiré, the schwa is maintained (pas de haut [pa də o]).

It combines with the definite articles le and les to form du and des respectively. In careful usage, de is used instead of des immediately before a plural adjective: pendant de longs voyages; que tu passes de bonnes vacances. (In poetic uasge, de can be used instead of du before a singular adjective.)

It does not combine with the clitics le or les attached to the beginning of an infinitive: arrête de le toucher!.

Use as a preposition

Depending on the context, French de can be used as the equivalent of various English prepositions, including of, from, in, by.

To denote the provenance or origin of something

To show the origin of something or somebody, particularly when there is movement stated or implied, de is a common equivalent of English from:

il vient _de_ Londres
he comes _from_ London
c'est mon ami _de_ York
he's my friend _from_ York
il a sauté _de_ la fenêtre
he jumped _from_ the window

Use to show possession or belonging

In this case, of is sometimes a possible translation, although the most usual equivalent in English is to use a possessive form with 's or, particularly with a common combination of inanimates, with a compound:

le chien _de_ Paul
Paul_'s_ dog
la femme du boulanger
the baker's wife
la clé _de_ la porte
the door key, the key _to_ the door
le jour _de_ Noël
Christmas Day

Note the use with superlatives, where English tends to favour in:

c'est la plus grande ville _de_ France
it's the biggest city _in_ France

With the meaning of 'about', 'on the subject of'

With 'speaking' verbs such as parler, causer, se plaindre, de is the equivalent of about (though of is often possible too in formal English):

il a parlé de sa mère
he talked about his mother
il rêve _de_ réussir
he dreams of/about success
_de_ quoi tu te plains?
what are you complaining _about_?

Where there isn't one of these verbs, about in this sense is usually translated by sur or au sujet de:

il cherche un livre _sur/au sujet de_ Dali
he's looking for a book on/about Dali

Used to show 'agency', 'cause' or 'authorship'

French uses de with a kind of 'implied passive': to denote the person that wrote or produced something, or the object that performed an action. In English, we tend to prefer by (or a compound) with people, and with or in with inanimates:

un CD _de_ Jean-Michel Jarre
a CD _by_ Jean-Michel Jarre, a Jean-Michel Jarre CD
un film _de_ Truffaut
a film _by_ Truffaut, a Truffaut film
la route est couverte _de_ glace
the road is covered _in_ ice
la pièce s'est remplie _de_ fumée
the room filled _with_ smoke
il est rouge _de_ colère
he is red _with_ anger

By extension, it is also used to express 'manner' where English tends to use in:

_de_ quelle manière
_in_ what way?
_de_ cette façon
_in_ this way
_de_ manière très directe
_in_ a very direct way
"Venez ici!" dit-il _d_'un ton agressif
"Come here!" he said _in_ an agressive voice

Use to form compounds

As an extension of its prepositional use, de is a common way of forming compounds in French.

Used to denote material

de can introduce the material that something is made from; common translations are made of, made from, of, or to use a noun-noun compound:

une robe de velours
a velvet dress
une maison de bois
a wooden house
un vase de métal
a metal vase

In many cases, en is a possible (though sometimes more poetic-sounding) alternative.

Used to denote contents

de is used in expressions such as une bouteille de, un verre de, denoting a container and its contents:

un verre de lait
a glass of milk
une bouteille de vin
a bottle of wine
un carnet de timbres
a book of stamps
une collection de livres
a collection of books
grand nombre de personnes
a great many people

Use as a determiner

As well as a preposition, de can be a type of determiner to introduce a noun phrase.

French de combines with the definite article to form what is sometimes called an indefinite article ('some', 'any') or a partitive article ('of the', 'of some'):

du beurre
some butter; some of the butter
de l'argent
some money; some of the money
des voitures
some cars; some of the cars

Note that the above are ambiguous: du beurre can mean 'some (unspecified) buffer', or 'some of the (specific) butter'. One way of analysing this is to say that du beurre can be short for de du beurre, and to say that repetitions of de are always deleted (see below). de can also form partitive constructions with other determiners, translated as some of...:

j'ai bu de ce vin
I've drunk some of this wine
on a volé de mon argent
some of my money's been taken

The deletion of repeated de forms gives:

j'ai besoin de votre aide
I need some help from you
j'ai besoin de (de) l'aide
I need some help

de instead of des before a plural adjective

Immediately before a plural adjective, formal or careful usage often prefers de to des:

ce sont de grands auteurs
they are great authors
il a de jolis yeux
he has nice eyes

de as the equivalent of 'an', 'any' in the negative

In the negative (but not the interrogative), de is commonly used on its own instead of an indefinite article (un, du, des etc) as the rough equivalent of 'a', 'no' or 'any':

je n'ai pas de voiture
I don't have a car
il n'a pas bu de vin
he hasn't drunk any wine
il n'a pas d'amis
he has no friends

However, the indefinite is sometimes possible, in particular to mark a contrast. And it is normally used with être:

il n'a pas bu du vin, mais il a bu du whisky
he hasn't drunk any wine, but he's drunk some whisky
ce n'est pas une souris
it isn't a mouse

The form d'autres

The form d'autres is a fixed form meaning 'other...', 'some other...'. Despite what we said above, it is sometimes possible to combine with de. For example, [ROWLETT2007] gives the example des disques de d'autres catégories musicales.

Use as a complementiser (before an infinitive)

The word de can be the equivalent of English to used to 'introduce' a verb in the infinitive (or in some constructions an -ing form) where de would not be used if a noun phrase was used instead:

on a cessé la publication de cette revue
they've stopped publication of this journal
on a cessé _de_ publier cette revue
they've stopped publishing this journal
dis-lui _de_ venir
tell him to come
ce que je veux, c'est _d'_être content
what I want is to be happy

Cases with no translation

There are a few instances where de is used as a 'filler' in French where no translation is needed in English.

Before a past participle

When an indefinite noun phrase is qualified by a past participle, de is inserted in French with no equivalent in English. It's also used in expressions involving quelque:

encore un verre _de_ cassé!
that's another glass broken!
quelque chose _de_ plus intéressant
something more interesting
quelqu'un d'autre
somebody else
quelque part _(de)_ plus proche
somewhere nearer

With être and quantities

It is also used in cases such as this:

votre salaire sera _de_ deux mille euros par mois
your salary will be two thousand Euros per month

where this can perhaps be imagined as a paraphrase of ...sera _un salaire de_....

When isn't 'de' used?

From the above, we might assume that de is used in a few cases where in fact other expressions tend to be used:

With verbs of 'deprivation'

French tends to favour à, or another preposition representing location, as the translation for 'from' in cases where the notion of provenance or movement isn't very strong, and in particular where à denotes a combination of 'possession' and 'removal' or 'deprivation':

boire _à_ la bouteille
to drink _from_ the bottle
il l'a pris _dans_ la cuisine
he took it _from_ the kitchen
repartir _à_ zéro
to start _from_ scratch
cacher qch _à_ qn
to hide sth _from_ sb
prendre qch _à_ qn
to take sth _from_ sb
emprunter de l'argent _à_ la banque
to borrow some money _from_ the bank

Whether à or de is used seems to depend on how strong the notion of 'movement' is. Hence contrasts such as the following:

enlève tes coudes _de_ la table!
get your elbows _off_ the table!
on _lui_ a enlevé cette responsabilité
this responsibility has been taken _from_ him, he has been relieved of this responsibility

This article copyright (c) Javamex UK 2007. All rights reserved.