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Despite being quite fluent, something that slipped past me is that there are more verbs that use à qqn to me "from sb" than just the verb emprunter. For example, the following verbs all seem to use à in this way in Standard French (there certainly appears to be regional variation for this):

  • acheter
  • prendre
  • arracher
  • ôter
  • enlever

Is this a consistent pattern where verbs will take à to express from somebody but de to mean from somewhere/something?

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4 Answers 4

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Here are a few counterexamples where verb + from + sb doesn't translate into à but de:

‑ You will hear from him: Tu vas entendre parler de lui / Tu auras des nouvelles de lui1.
‑ Depart from me : Retirez-vous de moi.
‑ Don't expect anything from them: N'attends rien d'eux.
‑ Received from my brother: Reçu de mon frère.
‑ I learned it from my neighbor: Je l'ai appris de mon voisin.

1 These are just a couple of possible translations.

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  • I think one thing that confuses English speakers is that we think of from and to as opposites, but à can translate both of them. Apr 23, 2023 at 21:48
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    Not sure "You will hear from him: Tu entendras parler de lui" is quite straightforward. "You will hear from him" could mean "Il te contactera", and even carry a nuance of threat in some cases. "Depart from me : Retirez-vous de moi" feels weird in both english and french.
    – Frank
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:56
  • @PeterShor Both À and De TLFi entries contains around 25k words. Probably the longest ones of this dictionary. No wonder their semantic can be tricky :-)
    – jlliagre
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:56
  • @Frank Depart from me/retirez-vous de moi are taken from the Bible, not everyday's speech I agree.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:58
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    @jiliagre Pour la nuance de menace, je pense que ça marche, effectivement. Peut-être faudrait-il plus de contexte pour décider quelle traduction serait la plus appropriée. Je pense qu'on peut clore ici :-)
    – Frank
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:00
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Prepositions like à and de in French and “to” in English have so many different meanings that they only have very loose connotations, and there is no equivalence between the languages.

When paired to express an interval in space or time, the diptych “from/to” in English does generally correspond to the diptych de/à in French.

“This train goes from Paris to London.” = Ce train va de Paris à Londres.
“The shop is open from 10am to 6pm.” = Le magasin est ouvert de 10h à 18h.

But on its own, à does not particularly connote movement. It is the default preposition for an indirect complement (replacing a Latin dative). The general rule (which of course has many exceptions) is that when someone is affected by an action, the affected person is an indirect complement (complément d'objet indirect) of the verb, introduced by the preposition à. For example, whether you're selling something or buying something, the other participant in the exchange is introduced by à. In French, it feels perfectly logical to use the same preposition for both verbs, since the other participant is affected in a similar way. The fact that the object moves towards the other participant in one case and away from the other participant in the other case does not feel like a reason to use different prepositions.

This is an aspect of a more general difference between English and French: English prepositions are more likely to convey movement on their own, compared to French. Another manifestation of this phenomenon is how, when expressing both the direction and the manner of movement, English tends to use a preposition for the direction and a verb for the manner, whereas French tends to use a verb for the direction and a complement for the manner.

“He ran out of the building.” = Il sortit du bâtiment en courant.

(This is of course a tendency and not an absolute rule: you can say “he exited the building at a run” and il a couru hors du bâtiment, but these tend to be idiomatic in fewer circumstances.)

The preposition de is somewhat more likely to be used when an object is taken out. Contrast:

J'ai pris le chapeau au voleur pour le rendre à son propriétaire. (The thief is affected by the action.)
J'ai pris le chapeau du placard pour le rendre à son propriétaire. (The object is taken out of the closet.)

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  • The taken out idea would certainly explain why my impression is that it's about whether the complement is animate or not: It's not often that we take things out of a living being, so à would naturally be more common there. Apr 25, 2023 at 1:56
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Is this a consistent pattern where verbs will take à to express from somebody but de to mean from somewhere/something?

No. In fact, your first three examples of verbs using à can be used with the meaning of "from somewhere/something", where de would be incorrect or at least much less idiomatic:

J’achète un capuccino à la machine du troisième étage. I buy a capuccino from the third-floor vending machine.

Je te prends à la gare. I (will) pick you up at the station, i.e. I am in a car and I am giving you an instruction as to where we meet.

La guerre arrache les hommes à leur village. War tears men away from their village.

For ôter/enlever, I do not think à is really idiomatic, regardless of any person/object distinction:

J’ôte/j’enlève son chapeau à mon fils / sa sécurité à l’extincteur. Correct (?) but clunky

J’ôte/j’enlève le chapeau de mon fils / la sécurité de l’extincteur. More idiomatic. De is used here to introduce a possessive (my son’s cap, the fire extinguisher’s safety), not as a "from" preposition.

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  • Thanks for your answer. I feel like your counterexamples are more so just examples of ambiguity that LOOKS like what I'm talking about. À la machine, à la gare, and à leur village could simply be interpreted as describing where these actions take place rather than from where things are being bought/taken, and as you note, de mon fils is probably indicating the owner rather than the source from which the hat is taken. Apr 27, 2023 at 14:41
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Not always.

Demander à manger : To ask for food

Echouer à un examen : To fail an exam

Partir à New York : To go to New York

This preposition can be found in a lot of different situations. "à" isn't always followed by a person.

As a sidenote, about "de":

Demander de l'eau : To ask for water

Partir de New York : To leave New York

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    None of these examples deal with the preposition from followed by a person.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:07
  • @jlliagre Precisely. Thus they show "à" isn't always "from followed by a person" Apr 23, 2023 at 21:24
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    I'm afraid one of us doesn't understand the question then.
    – jlliagre
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:25

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