Why do French partitive articles (du and de la) and plural indefinite article (des) look like forms of the preposition de?


I am looking for some account that will bring an a-ha! moment to why de l'argent should mean some money or just money (as well as of the money) and des garçons should mean some boys or boys (as well as of the boys).

For now, I use the trick of inserting an invisible a quantity before de l'argent and a group before des garçons. ("Well, de l'argent > a quantity of money > some money, a-ha!")

So the answer could be about historical development, some deep psychological truth, or anything else to promote that sense of inevitability and rightness.

For what it is worth, I've noticed this pattern.

NOM. SG. - GEN. SG. - NOM. PL.
un (le) garçon - d'un (du) garçon - des garçons
boy - boy's - boys
puer - pueri - pueri
πατήρ - πατρός - πατέρες

Of course I am choosing words for which the pattern works, and it may not be all that striking in full tables. (Also, per comments below,I note that d'un garçon is not called a genitive.)

  • Sorry, but I don't understand the question... :p
    – Random
    Feb 2, 2016 at 15:20
  • 1
  • For me,the common (& confusing) thread that seems to connect all these similar constructions is the existence & use of “des” (& “de” when negative) to capture the non-existent/mildly oxymoronic (in English) notion of “plural indefinite articles("pia").(The link's worth reading, imo. The accepted answer & its next-to-last comment even surmise that in French these forms existed FIRST as partivive articles that later became also known/used as “pia”) Regardless, I see no difference between the notion of “pia” & “des”/“de” used partitively.
    – Papa Poule
    Feb 2, 2016 at 16:37
  • @Random On veut dire essentiellement comme un complément du nom, d'où la référence au de.
    – user3177
    Feb 2, 2016 at 23:32
  • The pdf article linked by @hunter is right on point. It considers two older hypotheses and advances a third. In each case the ambition seems to be primarily historical ("this is how it came about"), but the intuition may be mostly analytic ("it makes sense to think of it this way"). Anyway, great stuff.
    – Catomic
    Feb 3, 2016 at 8:07

1 Answer 1


The PDF article* linked in hunter's comments to the question was right on point. It considers three hypotheses on the origin of French partitives. I will just mention them here so other members can form an idea ahead of reading the article itself.

  1. The Deleted Quantifier Hypothesis: According to this, French partitives derive from a form consisting of: a quantifier + de + noun. The historical stages of the development are supposed to be exemplified by: asez de vin > assez du vin > del / dou / du vin > du vin. That is, the quantifier dropped out while the definite article came in and stayed but without contributing its meaning to the modern partitive. (That is, du vin is some wine, not some of the wine; i.e. its reference is to a bit of unspecified, rather than specified, wine.)

  2. The Prepositional Object Hypothesis: According to this, the partitives derive from their occurrences in constructions like Il boit du vin. This construction is supposed to be syntactically ambiguous because boire may be a direct transitive verb taking the object du vin or an indirect transitive verb, i.e. boire de, taking the object le vin.

  3. The One-Sided Preposition Hypothesis: It is so named because, according to it, de is a preposition in its relation to the noun it governs but not a preposition in relation to its external context. The author tries to motivate the hypothesis with a paradox that trips up other hypotheses and even to provide historical evidence.

I have not thoroughly worked through the article yet and so may not be presenting it fairly.

You may, however, notice that the author's own hypothesis in fact describes what modern partitives are: De is not a preposition externally (which is why du vin may serve as e.g. the subject of a sentence), but a preposition in relation to le vin (the partitive sense being ultimately that of X being part of Y). Thus, we may say that it is the "no-derivation theory of the derivation of partitives," or the view that a one-sided preposition should be accepted as a more or less primitive grammatical category. For this, I believe, she appeals to non-French precedents. But I don't know that she can rest there. You may simply ask how in those other languages such a thing as a one-sided preposition came to be? I think the plausibility of her thesis may ultimately rest on how fine or not fine you, the reader, are to multiply primitives


* "From preposition to article - The grammaticalization of the French partitive", Anne Carlier, University of Valenciennes


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