Wednesday, October 01, 2014

French Prepositions with Geographical Names

Is it à, de, en or something else?

As students of French, especially on Duolingo, we're often confused about what preposition to use when we need to translate phrases like "He comes from France," "He goes to Brazil," or "He lives in the United States." Some places seem to have an article (e.g. "France" is La France) and others do not ("Paris" is just Paris), and the articles combine with the prepositions in what seem to be unpredictable ways.

There is an excellent explanation at, but it's a bit lengthy. For my own study, I have found it helpful to reorganize the explanation in terms of broad rules followed by a sequence of exceptions.

The Main Rule

Use à for motion to a place or location in a place. Je vais à Paris. (I am going to Paris.) Il est à Paris. (He is in Paris)

Use de for motion away from a place or origin in a place. Je viens de Paris. (I am coming from Paris.)  Elle est de Paris. (She is from Paris.)

Clean and simple, and it works for anything that doesn't have an article in the name, which includes most cities.

Cities and Islands: Exceptions we already know about

We already know a set of rules for how á and de combine with articles. You should already be very familiar with this table of contractions:

le la l' les
à au à la à l' aux
de du de la de l' des

So, for example, you should not be surprised to learn that "I am going to Le Havre" is Je viens au Havre. Or that "We are coming from the Cook Islands" is Nous venons des Îles Cook.

We're also used to de becoming d' in front of a word that starts with a vowel. It should seem natural that "I am coming from Hawaii" is Je viens d'Hawaï.

This is precisely how it works for cities and islands, so the good news is that there is nothing new to learn for those kinds of location, even when there is an article as part of the name.

Countries and Continents

What's the Gender?

For whatever reason, these larger regions take an article in French, even though they do not in English. So "France" is La France, "Brazil" is "Le Brésil," Germany is L'Allemagne, and the United States is Les États-Unis.

Our first problem is to learn what these articles are. Fortunately, there's an easy rule: everything that does not end in the letter e is masculine. No exceptions. All but six that do end in e are feminine. The only challenge is to memorize the masculine ones that end in e.

The most important one is le Mexique (Mexico). The others are le Belize (Belize), le Cambodge (Cambodia), le Mozambique (Mozambique), le Zaïre (Zaire), and le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe). (List taken from

All continents end in e and all are feminine, so the rule works perfectly for them.

A new table of contractions

Having gone to all this trouble to figure out which article goes with which country, it really seems like a shame that the next rule says that we always get rid of the article in expressions involving motion or location. The set of contractions that we learned before still apply, but there are new rules for the middle two columns. Notice that these are exactly the columns in the standard table that weren't really contractions in the first place, so there are really only four new contractions to memorize.

le la l' les
à au en en aux
de du de d' des

So "I am going to France" is Je vais en France. "He is coming from France" is Il vient de France. "We are going to Germany" is Nous allons en Allemagne. And "She is coming from Germany" is Elle vient d'Allemagne. 

States and Provinces

US States and Canadian Provinces all take articles, just like countries and continents do. They use the same table of contractions, so there's nothing new to memorize there. The only problem is learning the genders.


Most of the US States have the same name in French as in English. My mnemonic is that "those states don't have real French names." They are all masculine.

For the ones that do have real French names, the ones that end in e are feminine and the ones that do not are masculine.

The sole exception is Le Nouveau Mexique (New Mexico), which is easy to remember because Mexico the country is an exception too.


Everything takes a masculine article except the three western provinces la Colombie-Britannique (British Columbia), l'Alberta (Alberta), and la Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan) plus the three Maritime provinces l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard (Prince Edward Island), la Nouvelle-Éscosse (Noca Scotia), and Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador (Newfoundland and Labrador). This last one is actually masculine, but unlike all the rest it takes no article and follows the same rules as a city would.

The obvious mnemonic would be to make a Newfie joke, but I'll leave that to the reader's discretion.

Exceptions to the Exceptions

A few countries (e.g. Israel) don't take an article at all, so they behave like cities and islands. A few large islands (e.g. Corsica) take a feminine article and behave like countries or continents. These just have to be learned individually.


Jack Wylie said...

British Columbia should be LA Colombie-Britannique.
Jack Wylie

Greg Hullender said...

Thanks! I fixed it.