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The French They Never Taught You 6: A New Twist on "de" and "à"

French students learn that de means "of" or "from" and that à means "at" or "to." That may be OK as a rule of thumb, but in fact, the situation is actually more complicated, because à sometimes means "from" (and thus just the opposite of "to"--which is what it usually means).

Consider this passage:

La Belgique va louer une prison aux Pays-Bas : Confrontée depuis des années à un problème de surpopulation carcérale, le gouvernement belge se tourne vers son voisin, qui compte plusieurs prisons complètement vides.

At first glance, it looks as though Belgium is going to lease a prison to the Netherlands, but as the second part of the sentence makes clear, it's actually the other way around: Belgium is going to lease a prison from the Netherlands.

Here is another example:

Kensington Palace, dont le rez-de-chaussée est transformé en musée, le premier étage est occupé par les membres mineurs de la famille Windsor. Ils louent à la reine des appartements somptueux pour un montant ridiculement bas.

Obviously, the members of the Royal Family are renting luxurious apartments from the Queen, not to the Queen, at Kensington Palace.

The excellent book French Grammar and Usage, by Hawkins and Towell. 2nd edition 2001, p. 193, provides a whole list of cases where à means from and not to:

acheter un camion à un garagiste = buy a truck from a garage owner arracher de l’argent à un avare = get money from a miser cacher la catastrophe à sa famille = hide the disaster from one’s family dérober de l’argent à ses enfants =steal money from one’s children enlever le pistolet au voleur = take the revolver away from the thief ôter une écharde à quelqu’un = remove a splinter from someone retirer son permis au conducteur = take away the license from the driver voler une bague à sa cousine = steal a ring from one’s cousin


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