Compound nouns formed with prepositions à, de, en

Look at these examples:
 

un verre à vin
a wine glass  
(a glass for wine)

 

un bracelet en or
a gold bracelet

 

un sac de cuir / un sac en cuir
a leather bag

 

une tarte aux pommes
an apple tart

 
In English, we often simply squish nouns together to form new words for things: wine glass, snowball, ironing board, etc. (we call these compound nouns because they are formed from two nouns compounded together).
 
In French though, compound words like this are almost always separated by à or de or en and the meaning changes depending on which is used.
 

à

à usually indicates what something is designed for, e.g. un verre à vin.
 
Note that to say a glass of wine, we use de where English uses of: e.g. un verre de vin.
 

de / en

de or en usually implies what something is made of, e.g. un sac de cuir / un sac en cuir.
 

à la / à l' / au / aux 

Additionally, à la / à l’ / au / aux are used particularly with food to mean withmade with or flavoured with, e.g. une glace à la vanille. 
 
 

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

une brosse à dents
a tooth brush



une boule de neige
a snowball (a ball of snow)


un sandwich au jambon
a ham sandwich


une boule à neige
a snowglobe (an ornamental toy that you shake)


une cuillère à soupe
a soup spoon


un oreiller en plume / un oreiller de plume
a feather pillow


un verre à vin
a wine glass  
(a glass for wine)


la glace à la vanille
a vanilla ice-cream


un sac de cuir / un sac en cuir
a leather bag


un bracelet en or
a gold bracelet


une tarte aux pommes
an apple tart


Boules de neige et Jour de l'An Et Bonne Année grand-mère !
Snowballs and New Year's Day 
and Happy New Year Grandma!


Q&A Forum 13 questions, 22 answers

William C1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Je possède un blouson _______ cuir

In the grammar lesson, it explains that you can use either "en" or "de" in "un sac .... cuir". So to avoid confusion,  would it not be better to show that both "en" and "de" are also both acceptable answers in "Je possède un blouson _____ cuir". Or are they?

Asked 5 months ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi William,

I would say that ‘en cuir’ would be the correct answer for a garment made of leather.

Une jupe, un pantalon, une veste en cuir

Hope this helps!

Je possède un blouson _______ cuir

In the grammar lesson, it explains that you can use either "en" or "de" in "un sac .... cuir". So to avoid confusion,  would it not be better to show that both "en" and "de" are also both acceptable answers in "Je possède un blouson _____ cuir". Or are they?

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ShereeA2Kwiziq community member

The example shows en/de used for sac ___ cuir but when I chose de on the quiz, I got it wrong. Pourquoi?

Asked 9 months ago
PattiA2Kwiziq community member

Exactly my question, when I wrote "robe ____ satin" both could be de et en, it told me I was wrong. And I am confused.  Should it only be "en"??

The example shows en/de used for sac ___ cuir but when I chose de on the quiz, I got it wrong. Pourquoi?

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MichaelC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

E.G. "une tarte AUX pommes"...My question, why AUX with two feminine nouns, tarte et pommes?

Asked 11 months ago
MichaelC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor
Nevermind, I believe the answer is, plural prepositions in this case are genderless.....it wasn't immediately obvious to me, then it came to my mind after I posed my question.
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor
Yes, that's correct. À+les = aux, regardless of gender.
MichaelC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Merci beaucoup !

E.G. "une tarte AUX pommes"...My question, why AUX with two feminine nouns, tarte et pommes?

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LathaB2Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Une glace à la vanille or la glace à la vanille is correct.ps clarify

Asked 1 year ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi Latha, 

It depends on the context - 

You would say,

Vous voulez une glace à la vanille ? Do you want a vanilla ice cream?

J'aime la glace à la vanille I like vanilla ice cream

Hope this helps!

LathaB2Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor
It's clear now.ty

Une glace à la vanille or la glace à la vanille is correct.ps clarify

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PaulC1Kwiziq community member

une boîte aux lettres / une boîte à lettres

une boîte aux lettres / une boîte à lettres -> Letter box, Postbox.

It may be worth addding this to the notes as an exception to these rules. I believe it is used in singular and in the plural ?

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

Hi Paul,

that question intrigued me, so I went online and did a quick research. Here is what I found:

Généralement l'article défini sert à préciser le nom, et quand un nom a la fonction syntaxique de compléter un autre nom, et qu'il désigne la « destination d'un récipient », l'article est d'ordinaire omis (la boîte à bijoux) ; et maintenu, au figuré (le pot aux roses). On parle d'hésitations dans l'usage avec un cas comme la boîte à/aux lettres.

At another place:

Personellement, ayant vécu en France et en Belgique, je dirais que 'boîte aux lettres' est bien plus commun que 'boîte à lettres'.

En effet, les sites suivants ont l'air de favoriser cet usage aussi:

(Gouvernement français) https://www.data.gouv.fr/fr/reuses/trouve-une-boite/

(Poste canadienne) https://www.canadapost.ca/cpo/mc/personal/productsservices/send/letterboxes.jsf?LOCALE=fr

(Poste belge) http://www.bpost.be/site/fr/residential/letters-cards/receive/guidelines_mailbox.html

(Page Wikipédia) https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo%C3%AEte_aux_lettres

 

-- Chris.

PaulC1Kwiziq community member

THanks Chris, I favour French from France rather than Belgium / Canada ,

I think I will keep with 'boîte aux lettres'. It seems both terms appear valid in everyday language , and I've learnt a new abbreviation from your wiki link -  BAL !

Paul.

une boîte aux lettres / une boîte à lettres

une boîte aux lettres / une boîte à lettres -> Letter box, Postbox.

It may be worth addding this to the notes as an exception to these rules. I believe it is used in singular and in the plural ?

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MarnieC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Tarte aux pommes

Is this considered another « fixed » expression used to describe food. Just curious because as « pommes » is feminine and plural one would normally say « tarte à les pommes » .  Are there other similar exceptions?
Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

À + les = aux

-- Chris. 

ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

À les = aux

-- Chris. 

Tarte aux pommes

Is this considered another « fixed » expression used to describe food. Just curious because as « pommes » is feminine and plural one would normally say « tarte à les pommes » .  Are there other similar exceptions?

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RitaA2Kwiziq community member

Why is chocolate ice cream written as la glace au chocolat and not la glace à la chocolat?

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

Hi Rita,

it is le chocolat, hence au chocolat

-- Chris (not a native speaker). 

Rita asked:View original

Why is chocolate ice cream written as la glace au chocolat and not la glace à la chocolat?

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ShrutiA1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

We can also say

une tasse à café. 

A cup for coffee?

Asked 1 year ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi Shruti,

Yes you can say:

Une tasse à café A coffee cup ( a cup for coffee)

Une tasse de café A cup of coffee ( a cup full of coffee)

Hope this helps!

ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

A coffe cup -- une tasse à café.
A cup of coffee -- une tasse de café.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

We can also say

une tasse à café. 

A cup for coffee?

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NevB2Kwiziq community member

Should plumeun in feather pillow be plumeux?

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor
I suspect that there is a missing "/" separating the two possible answers: "un oreiller en plume / un oreiller de plume". -- Chris.
AurélieKwiziq team member
Yes indeed ! Thanks to you both, the example has now been amended :) Merci et à bientôt !

Should plumeun in feather pillow be plumeux?

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ReneB2Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

A doubt.

It seems that une boule de neige doesn't follow the pattern of un sac en/de cuir. Is that right?
Asked 2 years ago
RonC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor
Bonsoir Rene, une boule de neige --> a snowball (a ball of snow) There does not seem to be a valid reason one could not state «une boule en neige», the biggest hurdle with that locution; however, would be in using it verbally. Une boule de neige sounds more aesthetically pleasing when pronounced. Bonne chance.

A doubt.

It seems that une boule de neige doesn't follow the pattern of un sac en/de cuir. Is that right?

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SurendraA1Kwiziq community member

Why 'salle de bains', shouldn't it be 'salle à bains'

According to this lesson, for translation of bathroom/washroom, a room for baths. So it should be 'salle à bains', but why do we use 'salle de bains'
Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq team member
Bonjour Surendra ! "Salle de bains" is a fixed expression in French. I would say that we're literally saying "the room of baths" as in "containing the baths", hence the use of "de" here: it's the room that *owns* the baths in the house :) I hope that helps! Bonne journée !
SurendraA1Kwiziq community member
It is clear now, thank you.

Why 'salle de bains', shouldn't it be 'salle à bains'

According to this lesson, for translation of bathroom/washroom, a room for baths. So it should be 'salle à bains', but why do we use 'salle de bains'

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Thekla A1Kwiziq community member

We can say " un verre à eau " when we want a glass *for* water not *of* water?

Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq team member
Bonjour Thekla ! Yes, exactly! "Un verre à eau" is a glass "made for" water, whereas "un verre d'eau" is a glass containing water. Bonne journée !
Thekla A1Kwiziq community member
Merci, à bientôt

We can say " un verre à eau " when we want a glass *for* water not *of* water?

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JoakimC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

De vs en

Are these competely interchangeable for specifying what something is made of or are there pronounciation rules that indicate which one is better for a particular word?
Asked 2 years ago
AurélieKwiziq team member
Bonjour Joakim ! I would say that "en" implies that this is the main (and often only) element the thing is made of, whereas "de" would imply that it's one of the elements composing the thing, but there must be more. Colloquially, "en" is used more often than "de". I hope that's helpful! Bonnes Fêtes et à bientôt !

De vs en

Are these competely interchangeable for specifying what something is made of or are there pronounciation rules that indicate which one is better for a particular word?

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