Edit: This isn't a question about how the grammar works. It is about WHY it works the way it does. Hence the etymologie tag.

Why is it that you use "en" before feminine country names but "au" before masculine ones? "En Chine", but "au Japon"?

My theory is that since "en" derives from Latin, this practice comes from Latin given that pretty much all European country names are feminine (maybe except Portugal (m), but then there's also Lusitania (f) which seems to have been the original Latin designation). Though this still doesn't explain why "au" became a thing if in Latin you only used "in".

Also, why do you use "en Afghanistan", not "à l'Afghanistan", given that Afghanistan is masculine?

  • 2
    See in part here. Jan 7, 2021 at 6:37
  • See also french.stackexchange.com/questions/16974
    – jlliagre
    Jan 7, 2021 at 8:58
  • I think OP knows the rule (and through answer linked by Thélée_Lavoie also the exception) but wonders on the reasons/origins of this difference.
    – Laurent S.
    Jan 7, 2021 at 10:14
  • I don't know about Vatican and Monténégro but many masculine country names are kingdoms/ex kingdoms/duchés: Portugal, Danemark, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Royaume-Uni. Since royaume and duché are masculine, it makes sense. That doesn't explain why some kingdoms are feminine though (l'Espagne, la Belgique...).
    – vc 74
    Jan 8, 2021 at 7:14

1 Answer 1


In Latin, all cities and country names were feminine and not neutral as we might have expected.

The preposition used was in, e.g.:

In Gallia non solum in omnibus civitatibus atque in omnibus pagis partibusque, Caesar, The Gallic War.

In French, this in became en and is still used, without any article prepended to the country name:

In GalliaEn Gaule

Some country names started as adjectives:

Gallia belgicaBelgique

Other lost their i in French:

FrancieFrance (it. Francia)

Some country names appearing later were masculine for some reason, @vc-74 suggested the fact they were kingdoms might have played a role, e.g. Le (Royaume du) Portugal.

For masculine countries prepended with an article, the logic would have been to say en le + country name. However, the fact is en le is quite rare in French and has evolved in au.

Here is what says the TLFi about it:

Une servitude gramm. fait que, théoriquement, en ne peut pas s'employer devant les formes de l'art. déf. : le, la, les. En a. fr., l'art. masc. le − primitivement lo − se combinait par enclise avec la prép. en pour donner les formes el, en, ou, puis au par confusion avec la forme née de la combinaison de la prép. à et de l'art. masc. (cf. à, t. 1, p. 22; cf. aussi la forme arch. ès < en + les). Adrian Peake, bachelier ès arts (Cendrars, Bourlinguer, 1948, p. 135). Ainsi l'oppos. en/au représente en fr. mod. l'oppos. entre un nom sans art. et un nom déterminé par un art. En enfer, en paradis, au paradis; en été, au printemps; croire en Dieu, croire au Dieu de Jésus-Christ, croire au diable.

My translation:

A grammatical constraint means that, in theory, en cannot be used in front of the definite article forms : "le, la, les". In Old French, the masculine article le - originally lo - was combined by enclisis with the preposition en leading to the forms el, en, ou, then au by confusion with the form created by the combination of the preposition à and the masculine article.
Thus the opposition en/au represents in modern French the opposition between a name without an article and a name determined by an article. En enfer, en paradis, au paradis; en été, au printemps; croire en Dieu, croire au Dieu de Jésus-Christ, croire au diable.

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