The Genitive in French with:
de, à, en, pour, avec/sans

What is it?

Even if Genitive is not a word we use in French, as we prefer to say complément du nom (which means literally ‘complement of the noun’), the concept the quite the same: one noun will complete another one to give more information about its origin, owner, material, component, characteristics, etc.

So, in order to link the two nouns together, we need a preposition. Most of the time, it’s de and à. Be careful, unlike English, we always need a preposition between the two nouns in French.

Preposition DE to link two Nouns

De is the most important preposition to start a genitive. It translates as ‘of’ or ‘from’ in English.

‘De’ for possession

The first and essential thing you need to know is that de is used to show the possession. De allows you to know whose thing it is:
– La voiture d’un ami. → The car of a friend.

But, by extension, it also works for the attributes of a thing.
– L’écran de la télé. → The TV’s screen.

Also, don’t forget that [de + le] becomes du:
– La voiture du voisin. → The car of the neighbor.

‘De’ for origin

Most of the time, the origin will be a place.
– Un jambon d’Espagne. → The Spanish Ham / A ham from Spain.
– Un vin de Bourgogne. → A Burgundy Wine / A wine from Burgundy.

But, it can also be a moment.
– Une chanson de 2011. → A song from 2011.

Or a person, meaning this person is a creator.
– Un livre de Victor Hugo. → A book of Victor Hugo.

By extension, a group of persons, a civilization or a god.
– Une oeuvre de Dieu. → A god work.

‘De’ for attribution

A problem you will have to deal with is the presence or not of the article after the preposition de. In the example above, we said l’écran de la télé. But, on an other hand, we say:
– Un écran de télé. → A TV screen.
Here, the article disappears before télé.

In the first case, the relation was more about possession while in the second case, is more of the attribute of the screen: it can be a TV screen, a phone screen or a tablet screen.

Note that, in English, we translate the attribute relation by apposing the two words together. Sometimes the relation seems so close that the two words become just one, like warship or snowball. But in French, that is not the case. We keep the de but we don’t use the article after it.
– Warship = Navire de guerre
– Snowball = Boule de neige
– TV screen = Ecran de télé

So to make it easier, think about du, de la as a possessive and de (alone) as an attributive, kind of the same with an adjective. You will undestand what I want to say with the following example:
– Une émission radiophonique. → A radio program.
– Une émission de radio. → A radio program.

So radiophonique is the adjective and radio the noun. We can link the adjective directly after the noun or put the noun radio with the preposition of attribution de. The meaning is exactly the same. Though, it’s not always possible because we would use the adjective if there is one available, sometimes, like here, the two usages still exists.ile

Preposition À to link two Nouns

À is the second big preposition. It translates as ‘of’ or ‘to’ in English.

‘À’ for possession

Most of time, presition de is used for possession, but for somes exceptions it’s à.

With a stressed pronoun: ‘moi, toi, lui, elle, nous, vous, eux, elles’

Yet it’s not the first choice to express possession because we should use possessive adjectives mon, ton, son, sa…, it allows you to express different nuances.
– C’est qui ? → Who is this?
– C’est mon ami. → This is my friend.

In this case, we want to emphasize the restriction present in mon. It can mean ‘so it’s not yours’. Or maybe, it implies that it’s my boyfriend or girlfriend. You may think: ‘won’t we use petit ami instead of ami in this particular case?’ And you would be totally correct. But think about somebody in his 40’s and 50’s. Can he really use the word petit(e) ami(e) without looking puerile or at least awkward? That’s where the à comes in handy. It allows us to put some distance with the possession, implying that a friend doesn’t belong to anybody. We will say:
– C’est un ami à moi. → It’s a friend of mine.

When asking “c’est à qui ?”

C’est à qui ? means ‘whose is this?’
We can’t say c’est de qui?  as we know de is also used to convey the origin. So it would mean ‘Who made it?’
– De qui est la chanson Shallow. → Who made the song Shallow?
– C’est de Lady Gaga. → It’s from Lady Gaga.

When answering “c’est à qui?”

Logically, you also use à to tell whose thing it is.
– C’est à qui ? → Whose is this?
– C’est à Pierre. → It’s Pierre’s.

But when  the relation of possession is between two nouns, you will replace à with de.
– C’est à qui ? → Whose is this?
– C’est le livre de Pierre.→ It’s Pierre’s book.

Yet, it is true that every now and then you will hear the following expression in a conversation in France: ‘C’est le livre à Pierre.’ You should consider this expression as incorrect (or at least restrict it to very informal situations). Make sure to use de in such a case.

“À” for attribution

While de is attribution for basic components, à is more for addition. So we’ll say:
– Un gâteau de riz. (as rice is the main ingredient of the cake, it is made of rice). → A rice cake.

But:
– Un gâteau au chocolat (as chocolate is added to the cake). → A chocolate cake.

This distinction allows double structures as:
– Un gâteau de riz au chocolat. → A chocolate rice cake.

Most used locutions include:
– Un café au lait. → A milk coffee.
– Un bateau à voiles. → A sailboat.
– Une chemise à rayures. → A striped shirt.

“À” for purpose

Most of the time, the purpose is expressed by an infinitive verb to whom is given the value of a noun:
– Une machine à laver. → A washer.
– Une viande à griller. → A meat for grilling.

But sometimes, it can be just a noun:
– Un couteau à fromage. → A cheese knife.
– Une planche à pain. → A cutting board for bread.

To help you understand, try to replace à by pour. It kind of works even if you should’nt say it.

Others prepositions : en, pour, par, avec/sans

Other prepositions can be use to link two nouns.

“En” for material

When giving information about the material of which a thing is made of, always use en.
– Une table en bois. → A wood table.

“Pour” for receiver

Although à should be used for purpose, pour should be used for the person who receive :
– Un parfum pour homme. → A perfume for men.
– Un jeu pour enfant. → A game for children.
– De la nourriture pour chien. → Dog food.

Sometimes, it can also be an object:
– Une application pour smartphone. → A smartphone app.

“Avec/sans” for additional content

We can add a specification that can be include or not with avec and sans.
– Une chambre avec vue. → A room with a view.
Which means une chambre sans vue is also possible.

– Un téléphone sans fil. → A smartphone.
Which means un téléphone avec fil is also possible. But… well, just say téléphone.

Apposition

As we told it earlier, apposition is not a common phenomenon in French. Though it exists.

Apposition replacing “à”

Sometimes the relation is so close between two that the preposition disappears. For example, we say:
– Un café crème. → A coffee with cream.
Obviously, it means à la crème.

Apposition when no preposition would work

There is also a case where no preposition would work:
– Une danseuse étoile. → A star dancer.
In this example, we can’t add de, à or any other preposition as the relation between danseuse and étoile is nor possession, nor attribution. It’s just what we call them. Like you will say:
– La station Montparnasse-Bienvenüe → The subway station Montparnasse-Bienvenüe.
– La Renault Clio → The Renault Clio.

This kind of apposition is also very common for professions:
– Un chef cuisiner. → A head chef.
– Un agent comptable. → An accounting officer.
– Un artisan boulanger. → An artisan baker.

Sometimes, we use a dash “-” (tiret) to link the words, maybe to show the second word is a noun, not an adjective:
– Un chirurgien-dentiste. → A dental surgeon.

To go further

Check the lesson 20 about Genitive constructions with dialogues, audio, translation, vocab and activities!

To go further, check our lessons for elementary level on the frontpage and the ebook Learn French 2. You’ll find tons of activities to practice and get better!