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The full sentence: Ils ont besoin de livres et de DVDs pour pouvoir s'occuper pendant le voyage.

My understanding is that livres et DVDs are plural, so the contracted form of de + les would be des. So why is "de" correct? I don't see a negation??

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    Remember that (approximiately) "besoin de" means "need of" and "les livres" means "the books." Do you want to say "They have need of the books" or do you want to say "they have need of books" (indefinite)? If you want to say the latter, it is not correct to use the contracted form of de + les here, you want to have de + des, which is not allowed and is normally expressed with "de" alone. – sumelic Apr 25 '17 at 1:47
  • I want to say "they have need of books," but shouldn't that still be the indefinite plural "des," not "de" ? – maxence19 Apr 25 '17 at 1:50
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    If you use a "literal" translation, "need of" is "besoin de" and "books" is "des livres." As you can see, there is no way to get "besoin des livres" by putting these together. If you think of "des livres" as meaing "books" then it would = "need books" which doesn't work. You are forgetting about one of the "de"s. What we would get, if we just pasted together these equivalents to the English expressions, is "besoin de des livres." But "de des" is not actually used in French; the convention is to use "de" instead in circumstances like this. – sumelic Apr 25 '17 at 1:52
  • you would use "ils ont besoins des livres" if the books are specific and impleid by context. (e.g. ils ont besoin des livres (de programmation, de l'auteur, du candidat, du suspect, ...)) – Archemar Apr 25 '17 at 8:46
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It can be hard for us English speakers to know when to use des and when to omit it, since we don't really have it in English. For us, "books" sounds like it has the same status in these sentences:

There are books on the table.
I have a lot of books.
I need books.

Yet French sees them differently:

Il y a des livres sur la table.
J'ai beaucoup de livres.
J'ai besoin de livres.

The first case tends to be a hurdle, particularly if the student has already learned that des is de + les. Why should there be anything definite in that sentence?

But interestingly enough, in the other examples, things are easier. The rule is that after a container or quantity, i.e. when you have an expression that already uses de, you leave out the article.

Beaucoup de livres
Besoin de livres
Peu de livres
Plus de livres
Plein de livres

And then if you add the article (les) back in, the meaning changes in a very predictable way: "of the" ("many of the books", "need the books", "few of the books").

So the real question is why the article is present in the standard case! I don't have a satisfactory answer for that on hand... but the good news is that the rule is at least mostly consistent: After a container or quantity, de is enough on its own for an indefinite noun, whether singular or plural.

  • But your examples are good, and 'des' does include a tinge of definition, il y a des livres sur la table is talking about a definite set of books, even if you're not properly speaking categorizing them. On the other hand, the 'de' refers to a category of objects, none specific. J'ai besoin de livres doesn't in any way specify which books. If you needed the ones on the table, you'd have to say j'ai besoin de ces livres, or j'ai besoin des livres sur la table, leading you right back into the definite tinge of 'des'. – user13512 Apr 25 '17 at 22:22
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Ils ont besoin de livres et de DVDs = they need books and DVD (can be any books or DBDs) Ils ont besoin DES livres et DES DVDs = they need THESE books and THESE DVD (implying the books were mentionned before, ie they have a list of books to take for traveling: Do they need to bring the books AND the DVDs? Oui , ils ont besoin DES livres et DES DVDs.

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