Prepositions are a long word for a really simple concept. They’re the (usually) short words that explain how two other words share a relationship, and they usually refer to a location or position of some sort.
Common French prepositions include words like dans (“in”), à, (“to”), and de (“from”).
Prepositions with Verbs
Clearly, the concept of prepositions is very straightforward, which is good news. What is slightly more annoying is that French verbs and English verbs don’t always use the same preposition.
There is no pattern to the differences; you’ll just have to learn them. It will happen fairly naturally as you gain experience reading French text and learn their correct use in context, or of course you can intentionally memorize the relevant verbs.
On the bright side, while you may temporarily confuse your listener or reader if you accidentally use the wrong preposition or one you don’t need, this is a small mistake and shouldn’t impede your communication too much.
Verbs + Direct Objects
When they are followed by direct objects, the French version of the verb often doesn’t need a preposition, while the English often version does (though for certain verbs, the reverse is true).
“I am waiting for the bus.” → J’attends le bus.
Why isn’t there a pour in the French version for “for”? Essentially, it’s because attendre doesn’t mean “wait” in English, it means “wait for“. In other words, the “for” is already built in to the French version. Similarly:
“I am looking for my cell phone.” → Je cherche mon portable.
This one’s a little easier to make sense of, since the word “look” in English could also mean you were looking at something if you didn’t have a preposition there to clarify your meaning, while in French looking for and looking at are two entirely separate verbs.
Another common verb that loses its preposition in French is:
“I am listening to the song.” → J’écoute la chanson.
There aren’t a huge number of verbs that follow this pattern, but the ones that do are relatively common verbs, so you should try to remember at least these three.
Verbs + Infinitives
A much longer list of verbs that have different preposition rules applies to the particular issue of forming verb + infinitive combinations. French verbs will often take either the preposition à or de before an infinitive, where the same verb in English does not take any preposition (though again, the pattern is occasionally reversed).
“I am learning to dance.” → J’apprends à danser.
This one might not seem so obvious, but compare it to:
“I like to dance.” → J’aime danser.
Do you see the difference? An à was used with the first verb, apprendre, but not with aimer. (If you get confused, since the first sentence in English does have a “to” in it, note that this “to” forms the infinitive “to dance”, which corresponds with danser, not the preposition “to” that we’re talking about.)
Other French verbs commonly take de where the same verb in English would not use any preposition.
“I try to smile.” → J’essaie de sourire.
“I finished doing my homework.” → J’ai fini de faire mes devoirs.
“I choose to leave this town.” → Je choisis de quitter cette ville.
The number of verbs like this may seem overwhelming at first, but you will learn them naturally over time. When you use a verb with an infinitive, get in the habit of asking yourself if there is a preposition you should use before the infinitive.
Prepositions as Prepositions
On to a much easier use of prepositions… prepositions in relationship to nouns or pronouns (in other words, their “normal” use)!
Here are the most common ones:,
|behind||derrière||in, out of||en|
|in front of||devant||between||entre|
These prepositions work just the same way as their English counterparts do. For example:
“George is on the boat.” → George est sur le bateau.
“They are standing behind the door.” → Ils sont debout derrière la porte.
“We are running against the wind.” → Nous courons contre le vent.
Finally, let’s note a few of the prepositions that either work differently in French or work in a way that doesn’t exist in English.
Chez refers to a home or place of business, in a prepositional structure that doesn’t exist in English (but is very succinct!).
“I am at home.” → Je suis chez moi.
“You are at the dentist’s office.” → Tu es chez le dentiste.
Selon refers to someone’s opinion on something or to mean “according to” a person.
“In my mother’s opinion, I should become a lawyer.” → Selon ma mère, je devrais devenir avocat.
“According to them, he never called.” → Selon eux , il n’a jamais appelé.
En versus dans
Both en and dans translate to “in” in English, but they have distinct usages in French. En encompasses a more general concept of “in”, while dans is more specific, literal, and immediate. In addition, en is used without a definite or indefinite article, while dans uses an article.
“He has a fear of flying (of being in an airplane).” → Il a peur en avion.
“He is afraid because he is in an airplane.” → Il a peur parce qu’il est dans un avion.
These two prepositions also are used when discussing time. Dans refers to something that will happen in the future, while en refers to the time that encompasses an event occurring.
“The girls are going to read a book in five minutes.” → Les filles vont lire un livre dans cinq minutes.
“The girls can read a book in five minutes.” → Les filles peuvent lire un livre en cinq minutes.
Prepositions are very simple, but until you are confident with their usage, take the time to consider which you are about to use to make sure you’re using the correct one and not just the most literal translation from English. You’ll learn common usages quickly with exposure, but question yourself (within reason!) with your preposition choices until then, particularly with verb and infinitive combinations.