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When learning French, I was taught that an infinitive form, e.g. jouer, meant “to play” (or whatever). That is, the English translation of the verb was preceded by to.

The word à also means “to.” But there is an expression, cartes à jouer, for playing cards (literally “cards to play”) that puts an à before the infinitive verb. (And there are probably many similar expressions.) That would seem to have the word to twice, once for à, and once for the infinitive. And the expression would be translated, “cards, to to play.” At least that's the way it would look to an English speaker.

So when (and why) would French use à before a verb in the above context? Would it be redundant, or does à perform a function in this construction?

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J'aimerais bien savoir pourquoi cette question a été pénalisée. I'm curious to know why someone downvoted this question. – Brennan Vincent Aug 22 '11 at 14:00
I did. Maybe I just misunderstood the question, but I found it very confusing, and mixing the different meanings of "to" in English in such a way that I don't really see the point of the question... – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:03
I actually reckon that the answer you gave cleared up the meaning of the question, so I will remove my downvote (if I can that is...) and consider that I was simply confused about the question. – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:07
@Raphink: I edited the question for greater clarity. I believe such an edit allows you to remove the downvote. And an upvote to you (and the others) for your answer. – Tom Au Aug 22 '11 at 14:10
@Tom: thanks for editing. – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:11
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The construction "noun à verb" signifies that noun is used to perform the action denoted by verb. This is the use you cited. For example:

Machine à laver.

It can also mean that verb is intended to be performed with noun as direct object.

J'ai des choses à dire. = Il y a des choses que je dois dire.

As-tu des vêtements à laver? = As-tu des vêtements qu'il faut laver?

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Merci, maintenant je ne vais plus pouvoir regarder une machine à laver sans rigoler parce que je me demande si ce n'est pas une machine que je dois laver... – Joubarc Aug 22 '11 at 14:18
Joubarc: Désolé! :) – Brennan Vincent Aug 22 '11 at 14:43
@Joubarc: Haha, ça ne m'étais jamais venu à l'esprit! – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:52

I think this is actually a question about English rather than French.

In English, "to" is used for a lot of different uses. While it is used to build infinitives, like "to play", I do not believe that

I am going to play.

is "I am going" followed by a "to" infinitive, but rather that the verb is "to be going to", followed by another verb, without its "to" particle (but I may be wrong on this).

This is where I link with French, as "à" in "cartes à jouer" has nothing to do with infinitives, but could indeed be roughly translated by "to", as in "cards to play" (used in order to play -- hey, another to!).

In effect, the English language renders the expression by "playing cards", which is quite equivalent to "cards to play" (but again, has nothing to do with infinitives in either of the two languages).

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There's an element of truth to what you say. But the question is about "English" as it affects my UNDERSTANDING of French. Apparently "to" is used differently in English than in French, which is why I was confused. – Tom Au Aug 22 '11 at 14:05
I can understand. Prepositions are often complex to translate to other languages because we tend to use the same prepositions for various things in a given language, but not in another one. – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:07
And the "to" that signals an infinitive in English can't even be considered a preposition; rather a completely different word that happens to be spelled and pronounced the same as the preposition "to". – Brennan Vincent Aug 22 '11 at 14:40
@Vincent: Hence my confusion upon reading the question. – ℝaphink Aug 22 '11 at 14:41
Of course :). Perfectly understandable. – Brennan Vincent Aug 22 '11 at 15:42

It is to be understand like "Playing cards" that designated the cards themselves rather than the action of playing the cards.

The "préposition à" is used to explain the destination (or goal) of the noun it follows. So "carte à jouer" means "cards that are used for playing"

In English you can be playing cards with playing cards. (A bit redundant of course) and in French "On peut jouer aux cartes avec des cartes à jouer".

Other examples includes:

Fer à repasser

Métier à tisser

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