Verbs and Prepositions in French

You’ll notice that many verbs in French are followed by prepositions. We say “J’ai oublié de lui envoyer le message” and “On s’habitue à la nouvelle configuration”. Prepositions exist in many languages, including Latin, from which French developed, although French uses them a lot more often. Whereas Latin is highly inflected, its nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, for example, taking on different forms to show their function within a sentence, such parts of speech in French mainly show gender and number and need accompanying prepositions to show various relationships to other components of a given sentence.

The Role of Prepositions

A preposition normally expresses spatial or temporal relations, or designates a semantic role. As indicated by its name, or its prefix, to be exact, it appears before the noun, pronoun, or other substantive to which it shows a relationship. It takes on, in effect, a preposition.

Examples of prepositions include à, chez, dans, de, and par, which are among those that are the most used in French, according to Le Nouvel observateur, in the grammar section of its website. Sometimes prepositions accompany verbs without any relationship being overtly expressed between the verb and the following components, besides the meaning contained in the verb itself. “Je me souviens de cette scène” indicates that I remember a particular scene. At other times, though, the preposition used with a verb does point obviously to a certain type of relationship with the following components of a sentence. Compare “Je parle à mon grand ami” with “Je parle de mon grand amour”. In the first sentence, I am speaking to my good friend and in the second I am speaking of my great love.

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The Common Prepositions in French: À and De

The prepositions à and de are very common in French, as indicated above, and are likely to be the prepositions that follow certain verbs. They are, of course, used independently as well, and have a variety of meanings. The preposition à can mean at, in, or to and the preposition de can mean from, of, or out of. À can show point of departure and destination, cause and consequence, means and outcome.  De can also indicate origin, point of departure, consequence, and belonging, as well as separation. If some of these meanings seem to stand in contrast with others, or if the various meanings of à and de seem to overlap, it might help to take a look at their origins. Here are the Latin origins of à and de:

  • à from Latin ad: to, up to; toward, near; at, until; on; according to;
    for Ad is used with the accusative case in Latin.
    We see this in the phrase ad infinitum (à l’infini).
    We notice its presence in modern French words such as adversaire.

  • à from Latin a or ab: point of departure, provenance, origin, separation
    A and ab are used with the ablative case in Latin.
    A appears in the phrase* aliquid a me promisi (j’ai promis quelque chose de mon fonds)*, from Cicero’s De oratore 1.111.

We notice its presence in the French directional phrases à droite and à gauche.

  • de from Latin de: away, down from; from; off, about; of; concerning; according to; with regard to
    De is used with the ablative case in Latin.
    We see it in many titles of Latin treatises, e.g., Cicero’s De legibus (On Laws).
    We see this use reflected in Renaissance French, as in Michel de Montaigne’s “De la tristesse” (Essais I ii).

Verbs followed by the preposition À

When the preposition à follows a verb, it can introduce a noun, another verb, or a complete idea (within a prepositional phrase).

verb verb verb verb
arriver à assister à consentir à hésiter à
parvenir à persister à résister à songer à

E.g.:    

  • Nous arrivons à l’hôtel.
  • Ils ont hésité à prendre une décision.
  • Tu songes au moment où tu pourras partir sans souci.

After Pronominal Verbs

Some verbs in the pronominal form are followed by the preposition à. These include the idiomatic pronominal verbs below:

Verbs Verbs Verbs
s’attendre à s’habituer à se mettre à
se faire à s’intéresser à

E.g.:    

  • Elles s’attendent à ce que vous disiez la vérité.
  • Vous intéressez-vous au progrès de son rapport ?
  • Elle s’est mise à rire dès qu’elle a vu sa réaction.

Be Used with or without Preposition À

Some verbs can be used either with or without the preposition à:

Verbs Examples
réussir On réussit à l’examen.
réussir à Il n’a pas réussi son coup.
habiter J’habite ce beau quartier.
habiter à On habite à Paris.

We also see these used with other prepositions, depending on circumstance, e.g., “Cette compagnie réussit dans ce milieu”, “Nous habitons dans le même bâtiment”, “Il habite en banlieue”.

Expressions of Time

The preposition à is used in these expressions of time:

Expressions of Time Examples
passer du temps à Ils avaient passé du temps à réviser leurs notes.
mettre du temps à Nous mettons du temps à compléter cette expérience.

Different meaning with or without Preposition À

Some verbs that can be used with no preposition can mean something quite different when an à is placed after them:

Verbs with Preposition Verbs with NO Preposition
arriver: to arrive arriver à: to accomplish, to achieve
attendre: to wait for s’attendre à: to expect
tenir: to hold tenir à: to prize; to be very fond of; to care about; to be attached to (figuratively)

E.g.:    

  • Nous sommes arrivés à la gare.
  • Comment est-ce qu’il arrive à tout compléter en si peu de temps ?
  • Tu attends le bus.
  • Ils s’attendent à ce que la législature prenne une décision.
  • Ils tiendront la porte.
  • Elle tient à son image publique.

Direct Object and Indirect Object

Some verbs take a direct object as well as an indirect object introduced by the preposition à. In this case, the direct object is a thing and the indirect object is a person (or animal):

Verbs → quelque chose à quelqu’un Verbs → quelque chose à quelqu’un
donner lire
offrir envoyer
chanter

E.g.:    

  • Il avait envoyé le colis à son collègue.
  • On lira le mémoire aux autres membres du comité.

Verbs Followed by the Preposition de

When the preposition de follows a verb, it can introduce a noun, another verb, or a complete idea (within a prepositional phrase).

Verbs Verbs Verbs Verbs
accepter de défendre de éviter de oublier de
accuser de dépendre de hériter de rire de
changer de empêcher de menacer de risquer de
dater de essayer de mériter de tenter de

E.g.:    

  • Il a essayé de lui expliquer la situation.
  • On avait tenté de partir avant l’arrivée de M. X.
  • Ce manuscrit date du 15e siècle.
  • Les manchots empereurs en formation changent de place pour que chacun ait la chance de se mettre à l’intérieur.

After Pronominal Verbs

Some verbs followed by the preposition de are only in the pronominal form:

Verbs Verbs Verbs Verbs
s’abstenir de s’efforcer de se moquer de se souvenir de
se dépêcher de se méfier de se rendre compte de

E.g.:

  • On s’éfforce de suivre les conseils de la directrice.
  • Elles se souviendront du nom du client après avoir vu sa photo.
  • Vous vous êtes dépêché de donner votre avis sur la situation.

Different Meaning with or without Preposition De

Some verbs take on quite different meanings when used alone and used with de:

Verbs Examples
venir: to come Je viens à la réunion.
venir de: to have just completed Nous venons d’assister à la réunion.

We see that the meanings are almost opposite, since the first indicates arrival and the second suggests a completion, a leaving behind of sorts.

Verbs that Are Followed by Both À and De

Some verbs can be followed by both à and de, depending on the circumstance.

  • For the following verbs, à is followed by a person (or animal), while de introduces an infinitive:
Verbs → quelque chose à quelqu’un Verbs → quelque chose à quelqu’un
crier permettre
dire proposer
demander rappeler
écrire suggérer

E.g.:    

  • Le patron demande à ses employés de compléter le projet.
  • La ministre a rappelé aux membres de la législature de bien réfléchir sur les conséquences de leurs décisions.

Some verbs are followed by either à or de, depending on what they refer to:

Verbs Examples
jouer à: to play (a sport or game) Ils jouent au foot.
On joue aux échecs.
jouer de: to play (an instrument) Elle joue du piano.

Some verbs can be followed by à or de, depending on the relationship to the object of the verb:

Verb + à Verb + de
penser à: to think about penser de: to think of, have an opinion
rêver à: to dream about, have a dream about rêver de: to dream of, have aspirations
manquer à: to be missing from, to be missed; to fail manquer de: to lack
continuer à: to continue, to prolong continuer de: to continue, to be in the habit of

E.g.:    

  • Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de cette décision ?
  • Je pensais aux résultats.
  • A-t-il rêvé au monstre du Loch Ness cette nuit-là ?
  • Nous rêvons de déchirer ce dossier.
  • C’est un détail important qui manque à cette version de l’accord.
  • Son discours manque de subtilité et de finesse.
  • Les membres du comité ont continué à discuter des amendements jusqu’à 1 h du matin.
  • Le changement climatique continue de produire une élévation du niveau de la mer.

(Note that a September 4, 2017 article in Le Figaro recommends, along with paying attention to the subtle differences between using à and de with the verb continuer, the use of the preposition de between two vowel sounds, e.g., “il a continué d’amener” rather than il a continué à amener”.)

We find the prepositions à and de with the same verb in different constructions, as with those below:

Verbs Examples
obliger à: to oblige, to force, to bind, to compel Leurs actions m’obligeront à les envoyer au tribunal.
être obligée, obligé de: to be subject to, to be obligated to On est obligé de trouver des mesures disciplinaires.

Conclusion

Since prepositions pop up all the time and can seem quite random to language learners, they are often taught as parts of the language students need to memorize. And this may be the fastest way for some learners to learn them, but it is also useful to have some background when dealing with them. Even in cases in which different prepositions can be used with the same verb, it is good to know the different nuances that are associated with each. Remembering when to use which preposition can be dealt with in a few ways, including learning them along with new verbs and including them in stock phrases to have as references.

I confess that prepositions do not seem to be the most popular part of language learning, and that I myself have mentioned preferring Latin declensions. I do recall one person saying she liked prepositions, but this was the same person I may have mentioned in a previous article, a French woman who was vegetarian, gave crystal clear explanations of French grammar, and reportedly exercised three hours a day. These exercises undoubtedly included exercise of the brain, with a particular focus on prepositions.


Read more!

  1. Understanding French Pronominal Verbs
  2. How to Use Relative Clauses and Pronouns in French
  3. How to Express Times and Dates in French
  4. The Ultimate Guide to French Tenses
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