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I'm confused as to why I have generally seen à followed by article + noun, i.e.

café au lait
visite à l'américaine
larmes aux yeux

But sometimes à sits alone without an article, like

verre à vin
bar à vins

I know it can't just be the vin. Can someone explain this to me?

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verre à eau, verre à bière, vere à pied, verre à dent : it's not just vin indeed. –  Romain VALERI May 5 '13 at 23:16
    
Same with fourchette, cuillère, etc. –  Pauly Glott May 5 '13 at 23:17
    
verre à vin, but coq au vin. –  mouviciel May 20 '13 at 9:37
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1 Answer

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Some meanings of the preposition à require the definite article, others don't.

  • café au lait = coffee containing milk
  • visite à l'américaine = American-style visit
  • larmes aux yeux = tears at the eyes

vs.

  • verre à vin = glass for wine
  • bar à vins = bar for wine

Generally speaking, if you'd translate as for (i.e. if à expresses a purpose, a destination), then there is no article. Another case where there is no article is if à expresses a method — note that the distinction between method and ingredients (which do take an article) can occasionally be subtle. Objects made of distinguishable parts generally fall under the method case — the ingredients case is mostly for mixtures.

  • bateau à vapeur = boat that operates with steam
  • bateau à voile = boat that operates with a sail, boat one of whose parts is a sail
  • verre à pied = glass one of whose parts is a stem

Related:

  • verre de vin = glass of wine, glass containing wine
  • planche de bois = plank entirely made of wood
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