How to distinguish the indefinite article "un"/"une" from the cardinal number 1?

(a) Jean mange une pomme tous les jours. 'Jean eats an apple everyday'

(b) J'ai un chat et deux chiens. 'I have one cat and two dogs'

I can still see a difference between an indefinite article like in (a) and the cardinal number 1. But the difference is very blurred in sentences like (b), and also when I compare directly (a) and (b).

  • je mange une pomme tous les jours stays a number in my french mind, not indefinite. Indefinite could be 'je prends de la pomme tous les jours'
    – pirela
    Apr 27, 2022 at 9:39
  • There's no such distinction in French. Un is both a and one. Languages differ from one another.
    – XouDo
    Apr 27, 2022 at 13:08
  • 2
    In English, a and one are often the same thing. Do you have a car? In French, une voiture. Whereas: in English we only say one when it's important to actually count the number of cars. "Yes, I have a car and two motorbikes. Only one? Yes, only one car. So: J'ai un chat et deux chiens. can also be expressed as: I have a cat and two dogs. Often, non-native English speakers will say: I have one cat, to mean "a cat".
    – Lambie
    Apr 27, 2022 at 14:48
  • @Lambie No, "a" and "one" are definitely different in English ; when you say "a" you do not say "one", properly you say "Yes, I have one car and two bikes.". "Yes I have a car" means "yes, I have some car". What you infer subjectively from what you hear has nothing to do with the precise meaning of the word, which is not altered.
    – LPH
    Apr 28, 2022 at 9:26
  • @LPH Pas si différents que ça. L'étymologie des articles a et an montre que ce ne sont que des variantes spécialisées de one. À l'instar des langues romanes, les autres langues germaniques ne distinguent d'ailleurs pas l'article indéfini du numéral un (ex: ein en allemand, een en néerlandais, ett/enn en suédois).
    – jlliagre
    Apr 28, 2022 at 10:55

3 Answers 3


Here, the direction one is going in is important:

Going into French:

  • Do you have a car?

  • Est-ce que tu as une voiture?

  • Do you have one car or two cars?

  • Est-ce que tu as une voiture ou deux voitures?

  • Do you have a car or a motocycle?

  • Est-ce que tu as une voiture ou une moto?

Conclusion: in French, a single item is always un/une because un/une means one or a. So, basically you just need to get the masculine or feminine form of the article right. The English distinction of using "a" for one is irrelevant in French.

Going from French into English:

  • Est-ce que tu as une voiture?
  • The French can mean: Do you have a car? Do you have one car?

Only the context will tell you which is meant. For example:

  • Tu as une voiture maintenant? Do you have a car now?
  • Tu as une voiture maintenant? L'année dernière, tu en avais deux. Do you have one car now? Last year, you had two.

The other answers cover most of this but I just wanted to present it systematically.


There is no fundamental difference between un singular undefinite article and the numeral un. In both cases, the count is still one.

There is only one apple eaten by Jean so it's more the numeral :

Jean mange une pomme tous les jours. (Jean1 eats one/an apple everyday)

Definitely the numeral:

Jean mange une pomme par jour. (Jean eats one apple a day or even "an apple a day...")

Jean eats whatever apple, so it's more the undefinite:

Jean mange une pomme. (Jean eats an apple.)

Jean eats a specific apple:

Jean mange la pomme.

The following sentence doesn't make sense, Jean can't eat the same apple more than once:

Jean mange la pomme tous les jours.

When using the plural, the distinction is obvious.

Two apples per day:

Jean mange deux pommes tous les jours.

An unspecified amount of apples, this can be said even if Jean only eats one apple some days, or even everyday:

Jean mange des pommes tous les jours.

With the cat and dogs example:

— Tu as combien de chats ? — J'ai un chat. Clearly numeral.

— Tu as des animaux chez toi ? — J'ai un chat. More undefinite but the number is still there.

— J'ai un chat et deux chiens. I have one cat and two dogs.

1 I usually prefer to translate Jean by John in this kind of examples.

  • 1
    The trick here is this: Jean mange une pomme par jour. We don't use the word "one" unless it is important in the context and is being compared to, say, two or three: I eat one apple a day, not two or three. Generally, we say an apple. I eat an apple a day. So, that's the scoop on "one" in English. It is very often just "a/an", unless actual count numbers are required. In fact, there is a famous saying: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
    – Lambie
    Apr 27, 2022 at 14:52
  • @Lambie Oui, je suis d'accord avec la proximité de a(n) et one. Off-topic: Je pense comprendre ce que tu veux dire avec "astuce" ailleurs en voyant ton trick ici. Je traduirait probablement ce trick par "truc" : *Le truc ici, c'est..."
    – jlliagre
    Apr 28, 2022 at 11:53
  • @jlliagre Thank you. "There is no fundamental difference", I don't think it is what your answer really says in fact: there is a fundamental difference, it is just that sometimes it can be ambiguious.
    – Starckman
    May 2, 2022 at 7:54
  • 1
    Precisely, "singular". The reason why I still say no fundamental difference. MWD Singular: of, relating to, or being a word form denoting one person, thing, or instance.
    – jlliagre
    May 3, 2022 at 6:50
  • 1
    @jlliagre Ok, now I better understand your points "there is a conceptual difference, just that it is not fundamental" and "More undefinite but the number is still there."
    – Starckman
    May 3, 2022 at 13:44

There is a fundamental difference between the singular undefinite article and the numeral "one" in French, of course. As there is no difference in the graphical form of these two concepts, the only way to distinguish them is the context, and at times (perhaps, more often than not) it is confusing, not clear.

  • Une voiture est arrivé par cette route. (There is not enough context, there is no possibility of telling.)

  • — Combien y a-t-il de véhicules dans ce lot ?
    — J'ai vu qu'il y a une voiture… (Here again, it is not clear what the second person might be saying; is it the communication of a thought dissociated from the idea of number? Is the person really the person saying that there is at least one car? You don't really know. The more careful speaker will be aware of the difficulty and modify his sentence consequently, as below.)

— J'ai compté une voiture. (It's clear, one car.)
— Comme j'ai vu une voiture, il y a au moins un certain nombre de voitures. (undefinite article; however it does take some thinking in order to ascertain that.)

In truth, the lack of two forms for these concepts in French is a pain in the neck.

  • Do you have a car? Yes or no? As-tu une voiture? Oui ou non.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28, 2022 at 15:14
  • @Lambie Soyez claire, qu'est-ce que ça veut dire ça ? Rien !
    – LPH
    Apr 28, 2022 at 15:49
  • Est-ce que tu as enseigné l'anglais? J'ai essayé deux fois de te l'expliquer mais cela ne semble pas t'intéresser.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28, 2022 at 15:56
  • @Lambie Il ne faut pas dire n'importe quoi, même si vous avez de la colère. Parlez du problème, c'est mieux.
    – LPH
    Apr 28, 2022 at 16:10
  • Tu ne fais que des commentaires moralisants. Moi, j'essaie de te parler de la langue.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28, 2022 at 16:59

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