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What is a Partitive Article?
Normally when you talk about article adjectives, you hear about two different groups, definite articles such as le or la, and indefinite articles such as un or une. French and English both have them, so they are fairly easy to learn. However, there is a third set of article adjectives in French, the partitive articles. The name itself gives a bit of a clue to what it is, an adjective that indicates "part" of something; i.e., not the whole thing. If you talk about a cake, you mean the entire cake. However, what if you want to refer to part of the cake? In English, we use a regular adjective, such as some, to fit the situation: "I ate some cake." In French, however, there is an entire set of articles to fit this role: du, de la, and des.
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The Different Partitive Articles
There are three different partitive articles in French, du, de la, and des. They are all formed with two parts, the preposition "de" added with one of the definite articles, le, la, or les. As you may know, when you have any sort of noun in French, it is either masculine or feminine. With the masculine nouns, we use le, so we have "de + le," which becomes "du." If you have a feminine noun, we use "la", giving us "de + la," which stays as just "de la." If you have a noun that is plural, be it masculine or feminine, we use les, giving us "de + les," which becomes "des." Here are those same forms once more:
Masculine = de + le = du
Feminine = de + la = de la
Plural = de + les = des
There is one exception to these rules, as you often find with grammar. If you have a noun that begins with a vowel and is singular, it takes l' (the letter "L" with an apostrophe) instead of le or la, and so we have de + l', giving us de l' instead of du or de la.
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Examples of Partitive Articles
Ok, so now that you know the forms, how do you use them, and what do they mean? Here are a few examples of partitive articles in action:
Je mange du gâteau. (I'm eating [some] cake.)
Tu bois de l'eau? (Are you drinking [some] water?)
Il prépare du café pour nous. (He's making [some] coffee for us.)
As you can see, the usual translation of the partitive article is the word "some" in English. You will also see the word "any" used, and as you can see from the translations of the examples, sometimes we simply don't have a word in English and simply say "He's making coffee for us."
The idea behind the partitive article is that it is, again, "part" of the whole thing. It's not "one" thing, like an indefinite article un or une, and it's not "the" whole or "the" specific thing, like a definite article le, la, or les, but rather part, some, or any of the thing. Going back to the coffee example, in English, we understand the sentence to mean that he is making some coffee, even though it is not specified. He is not making all the coffee in the world, and he is not making one single coffee (or even several cups, that being a specific amount), but rather some unspecified amount of coffee. In French, you must have the article before the noun, and because we cannot use a definite or an indefinite article, you use the partitive article.