Nous dormirons dans un hotel.

Nous dormirons à l'hotel.

Why does the preposition change in this case? Is it an inconsistency in your opinion? Do native French speakers occasionally find that unusual /strange, too?

  • Nous passerons la nuit à l'hôtel. for: spend the night at a hotel. Sleep at a hotel is unusual in English, too. Though I guess you could say. But when would you say it? Sleep in the hotel, not in the parking lot?
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 14:45

2 Answers 2


Outside rare regionalisms, native speakers never find idiomatic phrases unusual or strange. This is by definition. "Strange" and "stranger" are related for a reason.

  1. On1 dormira dans un hôtel : There is an hotel where we will sleep. We probably already know which one.

  2. On dormira à l'hôtel : The place where we are going to sleep is a "hotel" type of place. That's the plan. We might sleep in different hotels.

  3. On dormira à l'hôtel (bis) : We will sleep in a specific hotel, the hotel well known to the people we talk to.

  4. On dormira dans l'hôtel : We will sleep inside the hotel (not in the parking lot ;-)

  5. On dormira à un hôtel : Not idiomatic. Unlike the three other sentences, no native speaker would say that (not from France at least).

If you name the hotel, the meaning cease to be generic:

  1. On dormira à l'Hôtel du Nord : Regular.

  2. On dormira dans l'Hôtel du Nord : Weird (only a single hit for on dormira dans l'hôtel with Google, from people used to sleep under the stars...).

1 Native speakers almost never use the first person plural in speech (even if some of us believe they do.)

Note also that this usage of a definite article for indefinite object is only possible when that object can logically be considered generic according to the verb used.

A hotel is a place where people sleep "by design", so on dormira à l'hôtel is synonymous of on dormira dans un/des hôtel(s) but when the object is not the one expected for the verb, the generic meaning doesn't work: on dormira à la gare can only be understood to mean, we will sleep at the train station we are talking about or at the only station there. On the opposite, in on dormira à la belle étoile (an idiom), the meaning can only be generic because there is no specific place with that name.

Same with a restaurant. On mangera au restaurant has either a generic or a specific meaning while for example on mangera à l'aéroport can't be used generically, that will happen on a given airport (we will eat at the airport we are talking about).

  • On dormira à l'hôtel ce soir. We'll sleep at a hotel tonight. That's the whole point of explaining an idiom to someone. The English and French differ in terms of the actual idiom. Je vais au cinema les mardis. I go to a movie or the movies on Tuesdays. But not: I go to the movie on Tuesdays.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 14:16
  • 4
    @Lambie The English and French differ in terms of the actual idiom: Not a surprise, is it?
    – jlliagre
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 14:34
  • Of course. Your "dormira à l'hôtel" was an opportunity for you to explain it and you didn't. Yet, it is a major point.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 14:37
  • 1
    @jlliagre Thank you. This answer was quite informative. So, using definite article for an unknown object and using the indefinite article for a known object both are possible in French. Btw do you wonder why the preposition changes with the article? Do people ever question such type of things?
    – Xfce4
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 19:01
  • 1
    @Simon On n'en est pas à un hôtel près ;-) Ouais je pense que c'est dormir/coucher à l'hôtel, puis là on veut ajouter une épithète ou comme dans le seul exemple on voulait rajouter sans borne, et c'est long avec la relative de dire où il n'y avait pas de borne et on connaît l'anglais mais le gars était de Bordeaux entk. À la belle étoile, à même le sol mais à l'hôtel ou dans un hôtel magnifique il me semble. Peut-être qu'on entend ça, ça ressemble à un calque, j'ai comme une hésitation étrange. Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 9:12
  • aller à l'école
  • aller au travail
  • aller au marché
  • aller à l'église
  • aller à la mer
  • aller à l'hôtel [stay at a hotel, or go to a hotel]

Those are how one says the general and idiomatic idea of:
go to school
go to work
go to the market
go to church
go to the seaside

  • dormir dehors et pas dans un hotel (sleep outside not in(side) a hotel)
  • dormir dans une boîte (sleep in a box) (a cat, for instance)
  • dormir dans un lit, pas dans un hamac (sleep in a bed, not a hammock)

dans really means in as in inside of, within the confines of.

  • Le corps s'est trouvé dans l'hôtel, pas dans la rue.
  • The body was found inside the hotel, not in/on the street.
  • Le chien s'est perdu dans le bâtiment. [in or inside the building]

If you are staying at a hotel, it would be: à l'hôtel, and not dans l'hôtel.

And, if you want to express the general idea of dining or eating at a restaurant or dining or eating out* in French, please notice: aller au restaurant.

We went out for diner last night. Nous sommes allés au restaurant hier soir.

The generic ideas as in the list above all take the definite article in French, and only "go to the market" takes one in English, for example.

(What was specified in the other answer about we being on is often true.)

  • I removed the whole conversation because some people are unable to talk to each other nicely. It is a shame, but I will do it more and more often if I have to.
    – Reyedy
    Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 7:44

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