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So for example, why is it "Je vais au travail à pied" instead of "Je vais à travail à pied"? Doesn't "au" mean "to the" in this case? So "au travail" means "to the work" when I thought we were trying to say "to work."

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    Je vais [au = à le] travail → aller à (je vais à mon travail) — [à = au moyen du] pied : « Aller à pied » utiliser le pied comme moyen d’action. – cl-r Rendez confiance à FL Aug 21 at 22:25
  • You're right, "au" means "à le" here, and French for "work" is "le travail". Many words that take no article in English take one in French (life is la vie, death is la mort, love is l'amour, ...) – Teleporting Goat Aug 22 at 8:01
  • @Teleporting goat > It's more that French requires to use the articles more than English does, was it for grammatical reasons or so that you can also get the gender right. "The life is beautiful" is, I guess, correct, while "Life is beautiful" is corect too but also much more idiomatic. French for "work" is "travail", "life" is "vie", etc... but when you actually use these words in a sentence most of the time you indeed use an article, but not always. E.g.: "Garantie à vie","Condamné à mort","Peine de travail",... – Laurent S. Aug 22 at 9:07
  • @LaurentS. Of course it's a little more complex than what I said. And words like life, death and love can have articles in English, but in pretty specific conditions. Like "The death of X" or "The love of a mother". It's specific, for one instance of death or love in particular. I'm pretty sure "The life is beautiful" is incorrect, you can't use "the life" for "la vie" as a general concept. You can say "The life you're living is beautiful" though. – Teleporting Goat Aug 22 at 9:19
  • @TeleportingGoat > My bad then, but still this is just a matter of rules on using or not the article in English VS French. I'll look into "The life is beautiful" correctness although I trust you on this as my English is certainly not top-level... – Laurent S. Aug 22 at 9:24
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travail can mean the workplace, not just work in the sense of something one does. Per TLFi:

  1. P. méton.

a) Lieu où s'exerce cette activité. Synon. atelier, bureau, chantier, usine.Aller, être au travail; sortir du travail.

Hence, you should think of it as the French equivalent of the substitution of "work" for "the office," "the factory," etc. (Compare I'm going to work <=> I'm going to the office) Here, work is a location, not an indication of method as is the case in the phrase à pied. (Example for à pied from TLFi: Je remontais à pied les Champs-Élysées.) Consequently, a definite article is necessary, and as the article is le, it is combined with à to form au.

Observe also that this also applies to other expressions that normally would not use a definite article in English. For example:

  • Je vais à l'école. I am going to school. (But, word-for-word: I am going to the school.)

  • Pourquoi étudier à l'université? Why study at university? (Refers to the pursuit of higher education, not attendance at a particular university.)

In these cases, we are arguably referring to work, school, or university as abstract general concepts. French typically requires articles for nouns unless they are modified by determiners or possessive pronouns, and for general concepts, the definite article is used.

  • Mais les femmes sont toutes belles. But women are all beautiful. (Refers to women in general, not a specific group of women.)

  • L'amour est un oiseau rebelle. Love is a rebellious bird.

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    "work" is "le travail" not just by metonymy for "the office". Ex: "Allez, au travail !" – Teleporting Goat Aug 22 at 7:59
  • @TeleportingGoat Good point, I was focused on "le travail" as location because of the example and hadn't thought to that. – Maroon Aug 22 at 8:17
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(note that I would have commented directly under the post if StackExchange would let me do it...)

Although Maroon's answer is correct, Maroon also misunderstood the question. I think the OP did understand that "travail" here was a location, the question is why is it "au" and not "à" for certain locations. Plus, in English "work" is also

a place where someone goes to do their job

as per what Macmillan Dictionary says.

So basically yes, you would need an article (le) in French, and à + le is au. Articles are nearly always required in French.

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