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I am learning French. I translated 'She refuses to drink' as 'Elle refuse á boire' which was marked wrong and corrected as 'Elle refuse de boire'. Is there any way I could have figured out this usage of 'de boire'. Is there any rule about this?

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  • You could say "Elle se refuse à boire" (she forbids herself to drink) which sounds a little bit old. Feb 11, 2018 at 9:55

3 Answers 3

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The issue is choosing between à or de.

When you say Elle refuse de boire you have the verb refuser followed by another verb, de is the preposition you have to use after refuser when it is followed by another verb (to refuse to do something).

When you say Elle refuse à boire you still have the verb refuser, but in that case it is followed by the noun phrase à boire. À boire means "a drink / something to drink". It is the same construction as if you said: Elle refuse le cadeau. In those two sentences à boire or le cadeau are direct objects of the verb refuser.

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  • (I'm a French Language Learner). Is à boire really a noun phrase??! In this case, is "boire" in "à boire" just a normal noun, or is it a verb, as in "une salle à louer"? Because if "boire" is a verb in "à boire", I didn't know that "à + [infinitive]" could create a noun phrase; I thought "à + [infinitive] only could create an adjective phrase (as in "une salle à louer" = a room "for renting", with "à louer" modifying the "une salle")?
    – silph
    Feb 11, 2018 at 9:51
  • @silph Indeed, it works as if you'd said "quelque chose à boire". A song that may drive this point home: à boire
    – Luke Sawczak
    Feb 11, 2018 at 13:22
  • @LukeSawczak, so this means I can say "Est-ce que tu veux à boire chaud?" ("Do you want something hot to drink?") or "Qu'est-ce que tu pense de à boire chaud?" ("What is your opinion of something hot to drink")?
    – silph
    Feb 11, 2018 at 18:40
  • @silph Good extrapolation. No, I wouldn't say that's possible. Notice that in the expanded version, chaud wouldn't go there: « quelque chose de chaud à boire ». As far as I know, you would have to say that whole phrase to qualify the « à boire » with any adjective.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Feb 12, 2018 at 4:46
  • oh no, i had not learned about "de + adjective" before. So a question about that, then: which of these sentence are correct? a) "Je veux un boisson chaud", b) "Je veux un boisson de chaud". That is, does "quelque chose" as a noun act differently than "boisson", when I try to modify it with an adjective? And when do I even use "de + adjective"?
    – silph
    Feb 12, 2018 at 4:56
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No, there is no rule for which preposition follows a verb in cases like this. You have to look it up in a dictionary to be sure.

refuser de faire quelque chose

continuer à faire quelque chose

commencer à faire quelque chose

essayer de faire quelque chose

Some verbs can even take different prepositions in different cases. Sometimes there appears to be some logic about this:

penser à qqch (=think about something) / penser qqch de qqch (=have an opinion of something)

Other times it's hard to discern any method to the madness:

jouer à (un sport) / jouer de (un instrument)

I don't think there are any rules that account for even that subset, let alone all the other verbs that take either à or de. So you do have to consult a dictionary and memorize them.

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  • 1
    "continuer" can even be used with "de" (there's an example in the link you provide). As a native speaker I always hesitate between "continuer à" and "continuer de". I'm wondering if there's a nuance between the two. Feb 11, 2018 at 9:54
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    @QuentinRuyant There can be a nuance in some cases, it depends on the context . A classic example to grasp the difference is continuer de boire and continuer à boire (or any other addiction...) (a good explanation here).
    – None
    Dec 4, 2023 at 9:23
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    Continuer and commencer can be used with either à or de.
    – None
    Dec 4, 2023 at 10:14
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The use of à or de as a verbal complement is pretty much fixed in French, depending on whether the following infinitive is objective (à) or subjective (de). However sometimes the usage is fluid depending on the mood of the speaker, hence the choice of à or de with verbs such as commencer, continuer, refuser. If a sense of effort is intended to be conveyed, one would tend to use à.

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    With refuser only de is possible. It's with the pronominal verb se refuser that the choice between de and à is possible.
    – None
    Dec 4, 2023 at 10:02
  • Ah! yes! I've got it now! The more intensive reflexive form will take à as in se décider à vis-à-vis décider de. It gets confusing because verbs such as commencer and continuer can take either preposition depending on the mood of the speaker. I must avoid any bad habits when using the verb refuser. Thank you.
    – Glen Povey
    Dec 5, 2023 at 20:55

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