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I couldn't find an answer to this question despite searching, however, I'm sure it must have been asked before!

I would like to know when to use le/la/les, du/de/des, etc. and when not to use them.

I am using Duolingo to learn French and it has a phrase for translation: Haricots et du pain - Beans and bread. Why isn't it Les haricots et du pain or Des haricots et du pain? My understanding is that des, du, etc. mean something like "some", so "Beans and bread" usually means the same as "Some beans and some bread" I eat ~, He has ~ but not ~ are food.

I am finding it difficult to remember to add les, des, etc. where there is no word at all used in the English phrase. I like strawberries - J'aime les fraises is something like "I like all strawberries", whereas I am eating strawberries - Je mange des fraises is something like "I am eating some strawberries".

However, my understanding seems to be imperfect. Sometimes des seems to make more sense but les is correct or vice versa. How can I remember which one to use? And why does haricots have neither?


EDIT

I was just asked to translate You sell shoes so I said Vous vendez les chaussures. The app said it was wrong and I should have said Vous vendez des chaussures. I was following the pattern of J'aime les fraises. I might say You are selling some shoes but I wouldn't say You sell some shoes as in English it indicates habitual activity and some doesn't mean the same thing. I would only say it if you are selling different things and only some of them are shoes and I wanted to emphasise the difference. You sell some shoes and some clothes. So why can I say J'aime les fraises but not Vous vendez les chaussures?


Why does Il connaît les femmes translate to He knows women (in general)? He obviously can't know all women, so why isn't the English phrase He knows the women (some specific women) or the French phrase Il connaît des femmes (He knows some unspecified women)? If the meaning was He knows what women are like or He knows the nature of women would it be better to say Il sait les femmes?

les and des are still not making sense to me!

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    Les is definite, des is indefinite. – Veo Mar 7 '15 at 15:07
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Well, this is a tricky one for sure.

Let's start at the beginning, there is 3 categories of article in French.

First come the definite articles:

  • Singular male: le, l', du, au
  • Singular female: la, l'
  • Plural: les, aux, des

You use them when what you're talking about if define, both the speaker and the listener know the object definite. So it would be the equivalent of this/that in English. It is also used for the possessive form, when the belonging is obvious, like "My hand hurts" would be translated to "J'ai mal à la main".

In the shoes example, in the case you want the red shinny shoes you found, you'll ask the vendor "Do you sell the shoes?" then in French "Vendez-vous les chaussures?". Because you're talking about those particular shoes.

Second is the undefined articles:

  • Singular male: un
  • Singular female: une
  • Plural: des

You use them when what you're talking about is undefined, or can't be defined. It can also be used for emphasis.

Still with the shoes, if you want to ask if the store sale any shoe you'll say "Vendez-vous des chaussures?".

For emphasis I'll give you an example "He is so stupid" could be said "Il est d'un bête"

The last one is the partitive article:

  • du, de la, des

It used for what can not be quantified, like bread. Basically it's some in English.

The Strawberries singularity

So, what's up with the strawberries ? It's cool to have definite all the articles, but it might not help us to get why is happening in your example.

"— Hey, what are you doing?

— I'm eating strawberries"

In this case, you're eating any strawberries, then you will use "des".

"— Hey, what are you doing?

— I'm eating the last strawberries"

In this case, you're not eating any strawberries, you're eating the last one, damn you! So you'll use "les".

"— Hey, what's you favorite fruit?

— It's strawberries"

Here comes the realm of liking, and yes you were right, liking is kind of a particular case somehow but not really if you think about it. You're asking what kind of fruit you love, and thus it is a defined kind. Therefore you'll use "les", because you're referring to all the strawberries, you love them all as a unique kind of fruits, not some undefined part of them.

The des grey area

You must have noticed it. Why des is everywhere ?

The reason is simple, for the first category it is des is the contraction of de les. For example "She is the kids's nanny" would be said "Elle est la nourrice des enfants". For the second category, if it really des. And for the third category, des is actually used for some particular words like for bread you'll use du and for spinach you'll use des.

I hope I helped you to understand this French nonsense. Tell me is there is some part you don't get so I can explain more.

  • Thank you! Un/une are easy to understand as they work much the same way as a(n) does in English. I also understand when des, etc. mean roughly of the. It's when they mean some that I'm having trouble with. I liked your use of humour too! I'm looking for a way of correctly choosing les or des in under a second that will make sense to me as a native English speaker! It doesn't have to be perfect, just some general rule that works most of the time. I can remember any exceptions that crop up. – CJ Dennis Mar 14 '15 at 12:52
  • Well for the general rule that works most of the time, you should follow: If the object is definite, you use les if it's undefined, you use des. – Gregoire D. Mar 15 '15 at 8:45
  • The exception when you use des instead of les, is when you have de les, you should replace them by des. Like in my example "the kid's nanny", it's the nanny of the kids. In french the possessive form of is translated by de, so you fall in the de les rule. – Gregoire D. Mar 15 '15 at 9:00
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TO answer the specific query: "So why can I say J'aime les fraises but not Vous vendez les chaussures?"

I see the distinction between les and des a bit differently from you:

les implies "all", "the totality", so «J'aime les fraises» means that you like all strawberries. The whole, all-encompasing category including their platonic ideal.

des implies a subset, some specific members of the category, so «J'aime des fraises» suggests that you like some particular ones on occasion.

Consequently Vous vendez les chaussures suggests that he/she is the seller of all the shoes.

  • I can see that it's unlikely that a single person would sell all shoes, but I also don't like all strawberries. Some are under-ripe and crunchy, some are overripe and squishy, some are ripe but flavourless, etc. I'm looking for a way of intuitively understanding which one to use. Does it depend on the verb? So vendre uses des, aimer uses les, etc? Is this something where in the end I will have to remember which one to use on a case by case basis? If you show me the correct one I can easily adapt my understanding to that example but I still can't pick the right one beforehand. – CJ Dennis Mar 10 '15 at 10:16
  • No, it doesn't depend on the verb. When you say "I like strawberries" in English it suggests that you like all of them, but unless we're philosophical pedants we understand that you don't actually mean that. In French you need to be a little more precise. youtube.com/watch?v=-JPfVGotIQI – Micromégas Mar 10 '15 at 11:54
  • Is it to do with whether the sentence makes sense in continuous aspect? You wouldn't say I am liking strawberries but you could say You are selling shoes. I think the problem for me is that the can mean this/that/these/those in some situations. Can you see the shoes? is virtually equivalent to Can you see these/those shoes? which is definitely not the same as Can you see all shoes? – CJ Dennis Mar 10 '15 at 12:33
  • @CJDennis To take your specific example, none of the following make sense to me "I am liking strawberries" / "I am liking some strawberries" / "I am liking the strawberries". – Micromégas Mar 10 '15 at 18:35
  • That was what I was asking, is because none of the sentences starting I am liking... make sense why you would only use J'aime les...? – CJ Dennis Mar 11 '15 at 14:14
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Le, la and les are used to identify something that is known and unique.

e. g: le cahier.

Un, une and des are used to identify somthing that is not known and not unique. e. g: J'ai une voiture.

Du, de la are used to identify a quantity. e. g: il a mange' du pain.

In the example above, it should be: Des haricots et du pain.

In fact, this is how it is written in the doulingo official site: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/310405

  • I am using the iPad app. From one of the comments by Debra.a.ke it appears that the online comment used to say "Haricots..." but has been changed to "Des haricots..." – CJ Dennis Mar 7 '15 at 12:09
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Il y a un certain nombre de cas en français où l'article est omis: L'article est habituellement absent devant :

- l' apposition : Sa mère, femme remarquable...
- l'attribut : Son fils est médecin.
- le nom en apostrophe : Compagnons, jurons de ne jamais nous rendre.
- certains compléments de noms : Une maison de bois.(et non du bois) Un esprit de synthèse, (et non un esprit de la synthèse) etc.
- devant les noms de jours et de mois s'ils ne sont pas accompagnés d'un élément subordonné : Nous nous verrons lundi.
- devant "minuit" et "midi" : Nous nous verrons à midi.
- devant des noms faisant partie d'une énumération dynamique : Livres, cahiers, stylos volaient à travers la classe.
- avec de nombreuses expressions figées : Crier victoire. Avoir peur. Perdre patience, etc.
- dans le style proverbial : Pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse.
- devant les noms qui se désignent eux-mêmes et dans les inscriptions : Axe vient du latin "axis" et signifie proprement "essieu. Voiture à vendre.

http://grammaire.cordial-enligne.fr/manuels/ART_OMIS.htm

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