I was reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus and came upon this sentence:

Quand elle était à la maison, maman passait son temps à me suivre des yeux en silence.

The usage of à I am referring to is in bold.

I reckon it means “by”.

Also, sometimes, de is also used to mean by. When to use à and de respectively when translating by.

  • 1
    Can you give some examples of uses of "by" where you expect it should be translated by "de" or "à" ?
    – Greg
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 5:19
  • Generally speaking, that site is nice to read for à, thoughtco.com/a-vs-de-french-prepositions-4080520 (it give a lot of example)
    – yagmoth555
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 10:20
  • TLFi: "(Le temps) passe à + inf./en + subst. Être occupé, utilisé à. Nos dernières heures "de Mittelsinn, avant la nuit, passèrent à rassembler des provisions (Ambrière, Gdes vac., 1946, p.366)"
    – Maroon
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 12:39

1 Answer 1


Rather than trying to translate the word "à", it might be better to understand the phrase as a whole.

The phrase passer son temps means "to spend a lot of time, and even much more than one should reasonably expect". There is a nuance of reproach or complaint, so it differs from the neutral phrase passer du temps.

Mes enfants passent leur temps sur leur téléphone

You can use this phrase with a verb to specify "what" one spends too much time on. As often in French, this is done by adding the preposition à with an infinitive.

J'en ai marre, je passe mon temps à nettoyer la maison

As to your question when to use à or de in such cases (I presume with an infinitive form), I am afraid there is no easy answer: that is something that native speakers learn naturally, but that you, as non-native, will unfortunately need to study... There are some trends you can remember (see here) but for a lot of adjectives, nouns or idiomatic phrases, you just need to learn it case by case.

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