This is sort of a question about the extent to which French speakers associate partitive articles with nouns that use them.

If you ask for water at a restaurant, you might say "De l'eau, s'il vous plait."

But if you were wandering through a desert, dying of thirst, as a French speaker, would the words running over and over through your mind be:



de l'eau....de l'eau....de l'eau...

As an English speaker, of course I would just be thinking water....water....water... Not some water....some water....some water...

What I mean to ask is, are those partitive articles only necessary in communication, or are they tied to those nouns in your fragmentary thoughts as well?

I know it's an odd question, but it informs my understanding of how those articles are used.

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    To me they are tied. "Eau" alone is somehow more abstract, like referring to a type of substance rather than to a particular amount of it (I can imagine a SF scenario where a machine would say "eau détectée sur cette planète"). Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 9:53
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    Yes we do, because we are not used to just say the single nouns, we almost always use un/une/le/la, etc. And in case of things like water, bread, etc, we need to to "de" to "make sense". And there are a few discussion too about how a language "forge" a way of thinking. It's kind of quite anchored in our minds...
    – Larme
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 10:20
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    "à boire" might come to mind as well as implying anything that could be drunk. "de l'eau" is surely valid though.
    – Everts
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 10:58
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    There was an advert for some water company where the character said "Je suis en pleine croissance, il me faut de l'eau, de l'eau !" or something like that.
    – Distic
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 14:05
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    I observe, for whatever it's worth, that ‘fire’ in Haïtian Creole is difè, from du feu. Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 1:02

6 Answers 6


The partitive article will still be needed, even in short sentences. Even if you are not actually "talking" but only "thinking in your head".

In the desert, you would indeed beg for De l'eau ! De l'eau ! even in your head. I can imagine a speaker would say Eau ! Eau ! only if he is about to faint and cannot speak properly, so this is really far-fetched, and not standard.

Some other examples:

Tu préfères du vin ou de la bière ?

Du vin.

Not vin alone. Same if you imagine this answer in your thoughts before you actually pronounce the words.

Or, imagine you are in a very secluded room, and you go out because you want to have some fresh air. You will say:

De l'air ! De l'air !

And not Air ! Air !, that would be very awkward.

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    An exception I am just thinking about: if you think about a list (eg ingredients for a recipe), you can enumerate the items with no article, just like if you were writing them down in a list. Ex: you want to cook some pancakes, and you enumerate what you need to buy, it will be eau-farine-sucre-oeufs-lait
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 10:22
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    Where are you from @Greg? I am a native French speaker and have never in my entire life heard someone ask une eau, s'il vous plaît in a restaurant. I wouldn't either consider asking de l'eau, s'il vous plaît as rude. Imprecise at most - the waiter will either ask you what you want or (more probably) bring you a bottle, but is definitely not impolite.
    – Nico
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 12:35
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    True, I am Belgian, and that may be a cultural difference: I would definitely ask "une eau, s'il vous plait" to order a glass of water (and the waiter will indeed ask if I want it "gazeuse" or "plate"). If I asked simply "de l'eau", I would have the feeling to ask for a hose or a bucket of water... Maybe because water is not served the same way in Belgium as in France in restaurants (the carafe is unknown, that surprises a lot of French visitors).
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 13:13
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    I'm Belgian as well, and although I'd probably say "de l'eau", "une eau" does not seem that weird to me in such a context, so it might indeed be a cultural thing.
    – Arnaud D.
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 15:22
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    It's the same with "Je vais prendre une frite svp" that we can hear in Belgium (no cliché ofc :p). In France, people laugh at it sometimes, as they find it more logical and correct to say "un cornet de frites" instead. In the same way, you use "une eau" for "une bouteille d'eau". It doesn't surprise me more than this, as I lived in both countries for some time.
    – Turtle
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 16:27

The only case I can think of would be "terre", when you're on a ship and you see the coast you can say "Terre ! Terre à l'horizon !" and you won't say "De la terre !"

Obviously it's not the most common thing you may say but it exists !

  • « Les conquérants : Terre … horizon … terrorisons ! » Jacques Prévert donne ici un raccourci de la "mission" de Christophe Colomb …
    – Personne
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 19:41

De l'eau would be the natural expression here. After all, you are not thinking about the abstract concept of H2O, you want to drink some water... However you might want to phrase it, we'll put some kind of quantifier -- un verre d'eau, de l'eau, un peu d'eau, etc. Eau alone would be very weird, and non-native.

  • So there is really no context in which you would ever think the word "eau" on its own? What do you mean by "you are not thinking about the abstract concept of H2O"--- is that to say there is a context in which you might just be thinking "eau"? Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 9:39
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    Eau alone, to me, would be referring to the concept of water. You might put it on a shopping list for instance: pain, eau, café. But for instance if you were asked "What else do we need?" and you looked at your shopping cart, you would for instance, "Ah, de l'eau". Or, "Du café". Not "Eau" or "Café".
    – dda
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 9:42
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    @Aerovistae If you refer to water in a precise case where quantity isn't global, you could use it, for example, describing a drink: "Sucre: 5 grammes, Sel: 1 gramme, Eau: 330 ml"; But otherwise, we always have the particle. If you speak of the elements for example: "Fire, water, earth, air" in english would be "Le feu, l'eau, ..." in french.
    – Turtle
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 16:29
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    I have to say, coming from English, it's odd that "eau" would make sense alone on a shopping list or list of ingredients, but not in your thoughts on its own. In English, I would make no distinction between those contexts. Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 18:21
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    @Aerovistae: You “would make no distinction between those contexts”, because you'd just use “water” in both cases!
    – DaG
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 21:28

Partitive articles are quite important in French. Skipping them sounds childish, clumsy at worst. I think it could be explained as this: If you have an item you cannot split easily (cake, bread, liquid, semi-liquids like jam, meat etc)... de/du/de la arrives. Du/de might oddly be translated by:a chunk of I think it comes from Latin, de,...like in de Natura rerum.

If you can take a plain item like an apple: Je mange une pomme (I'm eating an apple).

If you cannot exactly count it, du/de/des/de la.. Je mange de la tarte aux pommes (I'm eating some apple pie).

Ah, now is fuzzy time: Je mange une barbe à papa (I'm eating (a) candy floss) Je mange de la barbe à papa (I'm eating some candy floss)


So, following this explanations, how would a french speaker allert others of a burning?, they will scream "feu!", "le feu", "du feu"?

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    – None
    Commented Mar 7 at 7:14
  • As you can imagine, there is an expression for that case, which is "Au feu". Same construction as in "Au secours" or "A l'aide".
    – XouDo
    Commented Mar 7 at 9:27

DE L'EAU!!!!


Without de, it seems more like an order, like "kill/tue" or "eat/mange"

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