The sentence is supposed to mean "I am close to the bridge".

Why is it better to use Je suis près du pont instead of Je suis près au pont? From my understanding, au means to the, which is appropriate in this situation.


Your problem seems to be one of identification of phrases.

When you say that the reason you do not understand is that "au" means "to the" you are overlooking the following fact.

  • you are not translating "to the" but "close to the" in which "close to" is a unit of speech (which is not to be construed as "part of speech"); of course you can say "close to the sea", close to the house", "close to the continent", but you can also say "close to John", "close to England", and so on, and the meaning is the same. In fact you can replace "close to" by "near" (near the continent, near John). This shows the existence of a unit, two inseparable words. That is what you have to render by "près de". It's the same in French, in rare and specialised usage one say "près le X", "près la Y", and so on, but solid usage has it that "près" is used with "de" in the phrase "près de" and "de" looses all other meanings it can have.

Once you recognise that, thinking about what "to the" corresponds to is meaningless because "to" alone is not translated; "close to | the" is the decomposition of that phrase and "close | to the" is wrong. Anyway, were we to translate it, what would that give? You can't say "au" means "to the" and in any case that is not true : "au" means either "to the" or "at the". Nevertheless, if you say "to the" means "au" (since it is a translation from English to French), then what is the meaning you give to "to" in English? "in the direction of, towards"?; then "au" is not proper without a verb which shows movement; since no verb of movement is used and "au" does not show movement "au" does not translate "to the"; "au" means also "at the" according to the verb ("Jean va au pont." (John is going to the bridge.), "Jean est au pont." (John is at the bridge.)); therefore you have to say "vers le" and you get "près vers le" and not "près au". ("près vers le" is also meaningless.)


You're translating literally from English, but once again the often repeated mantra about preposition is true: their uses never correlate 100% from one language to another, and might obey extremely different logics.

In the case of preposition expressing the proximity of something (let's refer to it as "A") to a place or thing "B", English often takes A as its center of reference and conceptualise the relationship between the two as a movement from A to B:

  • A is close to B
  • A is next to B

But usually, a simple preposition is used in English:

  • A is near B
  • A is besides B
  • A is around B

French, on the other hand, uses the same deictic center (A), but systematically conceptualises the movement as occurring from B to A:

  • A est près de B
  • A est proche de B
  • A est à côté de B
  • A est dans les environs de B

When it comes to expressing distance, both languages agree in using from or de:

  • A is far from B
  • A est loin de B

“It’s French” is the simple answer. French speakers always use “de” with certain words. Here’s a link to a fairly extensive list, together with some suggestions for learning them: https://www.frenchtoday.com/blog/french-verb-conjugation/why-french-verbs-followed-preposition-de-infinitive

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