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“Il est l'une des causes de la crise” was a recent headline in a French newspaper.

What does l’une des causes mean in this context?

  • The insertion « l' » preceding a vowel for euphony? “He is one of the causes of the crisis,” which assumes that the « l’ » which precedes « une » does not represent the definite article, but is there for the purpose of euphony, e.g., « si l'on … » ;
  • As a superlative? “He is the one of the causes of the crisis,” which makes no sense;
  • As an allusion? “He is the first among many causes of the crisis,” which makes sense (in the sense of primus inter pares, but which may be an inaccurate rendering of the sense of the source;
  • or something else?
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Not constructive, please read the FAQ here –  Zistoloen May 5 '13 at 19:21
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@Zistoloen Why on earth do you consider this question not constructive? Please provide a better explanation than “read the FAQ”, which isn't really helpful. –  Gilles May 5 '13 at 19:44
    
@Gilles: I think this question can solicit debate and arguments because of politics relating. –  Zistoloen May 5 '13 at 19:50
    
@Zistoloen This question is about the usage of French of « l'une ». It has nothing to do with the subject of the headline, which I have now replaced with a pronoun. Perhaps now you will be able to focus on the plain meaning of the question, and not be distracted by some irrelevant political issue. The suggestion that the question is "not constructive" according to the FAQ, ignored the plain meaning of the inquiry, and was, in my opinion, precipitous and ill-considered, and indeed, not at all constructive. –  Austin Burbridge May 5 '13 at 20:00
    
@Austin Burbridge: I have said "can solicit"! –  Zistoloen May 5 '13 at 20:26
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2 Answers

When expressing that an item is part of a collection, you can write either un(e) de or l'un(e) de. The meaning is the same in this sentence (there might be a slight nuance sometimes). In particular, using l'un does not bring any sense of primacy.

I can't find a general rule as to when the extra article is used. In some constructions it cannot be used, in others it feels weird to omit it. The Trésor de la langue française (you want un³, the pronoun) gives some idea of the usage frequency in various contexts.

Including l' makes the example more specific, so it cannot be used when the example is one of many interchangeable items. For example (Mérimée, cited in TLF): « nous passions dans une de ces ruelles étroites comme il y en a tant à Séville » — the narrator probably wouldn't be able to find the street again, so the definite article cannot be used.

I think the article is compulsory when the collection is a pronoun, probably for euphonic reasons : l'un d'eux, l'une d'elles (or l'un d'entre eux, l'une d'entre elles — entre is added to avoid an overly long sequence of words that look like pronouns, it can be used in other cases but then tends to feel cumbersome).

The article is also compulsory in l'un(e) ou l'autre (“one or the other”).

In the general case, such as your example sentence, l' is permissible but can be omitted. It is more common to include it in formal writing. There is no difference in meaning.

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I would choose the first alternative: there are several causes of the crisis as the plural is employed, but they is no hierarchy among these causes. The expression "Il est l'une des causes de la crise." means "He is one of the causes of the crisis among others".

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