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When is it more appropriate to use “en” vs “dans” when you're wanting to say “in” in French?

Examples:

I am in the car.

I am in America.

I am in the living room.

The toys are in the box.

The package will arrive in two days.

I can read the book in two hours.

I'm leaving in ten minutes.

He's in the house.

How do you know which preposition to use? Is there a generic rule to apply?

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3  
You need to ask about specific examples; this question is too vague as it is. –  Brennan Vincent Aug 17 '11 at 20:51
    
@Brennan is there no generic rule? I can come up with examples all day but I need to be able to apply some sort of rule to them, no? –  Bryan Denny Aug 17 '11 at 20:56
    
@Brennan updated with examples. The reason why I ask is because in other languages (Spanish, for example), there are not multiple words to stand for "in" and I find this confusing. –  Bryan Denny Aug 17 '11 at 20:59
7  
Unfortunately, no. Prepositions are some of the hardest words to put in one-to-one correspondence between two languages. Prepositions usually don't correspond exactly to some logically consistent notion, and "in", "dans", and "en" are no exceptions. For example, in English we say "in a house" and "on a train", where "in" and "on" mean exactly the same thing in these two phrases. I advise you to get used to specific examples of usage, not to try to learn some general rule that will explain everything. –  Brennan Vincent Aug 17 '11 at 21:01
    
And be happy you're not dealing with hungarian... –  ℝaphink Aug 18 '11 at 6:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 23 down vote accepted

This mostly depends on the size of the place you're referring to. In fact, you could also add "à" in your question.

Here are some general rules.

En: for large places with a feminine name

In general, we use "en" for large places, like countries or regions, when they are singular and feminine names or begin with a vowel. That is in fact, countries or regions for which you would use "la" or "l'" to refer to them:

Countries: En France, en Allemagne, en Italie, en Grande-Bretagne, en Iran (masculine name, but begins with a vowel)

Regions: En Auvergne, en Île-de-France, en Picardie, en Californie, en Corse

Au/aux: for large places with a masculine or plural name

For other country names, we use "au" or "aux" (for plural). That is in fact, countries or regions for which you would use "le" or "les" to refer to them:

Countries: Aux USA, au Canada, au Japon, au Bénin

Regions: Au Kamchatka, au Connemara

À: for local places

For localized places, like cities, towns or villages (and sometimes small countries), we use "à":

Cities: À Paris, à Lyon, à Bordeaux

Small countries: À Monaco, à Taïwan, à Cuba

Note that Andorra is not bigger than Cuba, but we say "En Andorre".

Dans: for very localized places

For very localized places, like a house or a box, we use "dans":

Dans ma maison, dans cette boîte, dans le jardin

Exceptions to the rules

There are however exceptions (otherwise it wouldn't be fun):

Regions: Dans le Berry, dans le Limousin

Cities: En Avignon

Generic places: Dans le ciel, dans la mer

Expressing time

To express a lapse of time to wait for, we always use "dans":

Je pars au Canada dans 3 jours, dans 1 mois, dans un siècle

To express a lapse of time necessary to achieve an action, we use "en":

Le tour du monde en 80 jours

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1  
For places, countries,... we use it when it's feminime AND when it begins with a consonant. –  Louhike Aug 17 '11 at 21:02
    
Another general category is small countries: A Monaco; à Cuba; à Taïwan. As for U.S. states, I've heard "Dans l'Arizona" and "En Arizona" with about equal frequency. –  Brennan Vincent Aug 17 '11 at 21:04
    
@Louhike: do you have examples of these? –  ℝaphink Aug 17 '11 at 21:05
    
@Vincent: Thanks, I'll update with this. –  ℝaphink Aug 17 '11 at 21:05
2  
Remember also that "En 3 jours" is also French, but means something different. For example: "Ils ont construit une maison en seulement 3 jours". –  Brennan Vincent Aug 17 '11 at 21:11

When replacing in, the situations where you have to use en instead of dans are the following:

  • When depicting a situation, without articles

    My son is in sixth grade
    Mon fils est en sixième

  • For some locutions

    In front of...
    En face de...

  • For feminine continents, countries and regions names (all continents are feminine, and almost all countries are feminine, PLUS some masculine country name are also used with en)

    I'm going to Germany
    Je vais en allemagne

Exception: Quebec (masculine). note the use of au instead of dans used for large places like countries / regions

I'm going to Quebec Je vais au Québec

  • For season names

    I go to the pool in summer
    Je vais à la piscine en été

  • And some other very special cases

    In return
    En contrepartie / En retour

Note that this list only covers the cases where en is used when translating from in. You'll find other uses of en in other occasions.

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In situations where “en” and “dans” are usually translated by “in” a useful guide is to note that “en” is used immediately before a noun, whereas “dans” is followed by an article. Compare

aller en ville

aller dans la ville

But as with all such guides beware:

en l'absence de (in the absence of)

Here are a few useful expressions that use “en” which would most likely be translated by “in”.

être en danger (to be in danger)

être en train de (to be in the process of)

croire en Dieu (to believe in God)

être en bonne santé (to be in good health)

être en difficulté (to be in difficulty)

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A la personne qui a voté contre cette réponse, il aurait été gentil de préciser pourquoi. –  Derek Jennings Aug 25 '11 at 17:04
    
I'm not that one, but if I had to give a shot at criticism, I'd say it doesn't look very complete at all to me, merely many special cases, not likely to help simplify matters in the OP's head. –  Nikana Reklawyks Oct 22 '12 at 14:50

In general "en" is used for abstract ideas while "dans" is used for physical locations.

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Surtout en France ? Bienvenue sur le site, though :·) –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 9 '12 at 7:27

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