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Compound nouns formed with prepositions à, de, en

Look at these examples:
 
un verre à vina wine glass  
(a glass for wine)
 
un bracelet en ora gold bracelet
 
un sac de cuir / un sac en cuira leather bag
 
une tarte aux pommesan 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 tarte aux pommesan 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!
une brosse à dentsa tooth brush
une boule de neigea snowball (a ball of snow)
un sandwich au jambona ham sandwich
une boule à neigea snowglobe (an ornamental toy that you shake)
une cuillère à soupea soup spoon
un oreiller en plume / un oreiller de plumea feather pillow
un verre à vina wine glass  
(a glass for wine)
la glace à la vanillea vanilla ice-cream
un sac de cuir / un sac en cuira leather bag
un bracelet en ora gold bracelet

Q&A Forum 14 questions, 27 answers

DavidB1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

baseball cap, tennis racquet, door knob

Could you add some clarification re: wedding bells, baseball cap, tennis racquet, door knob, golf club, soccer ball, soccer field, sunglasses, Christmas tree, water tank, bus stop, fire truck, etc.

By your lesson, these should all be “à” (what something is designed for), but in fact this whole genre is “de”.

Specifically, why is it “boîte à bijoux” and not “boîte de bijoux” ? Other than convention.

Clearly, these are not just a few exceptions, but an entire class of compound nouns (open form, noun+noun) that is not covered in the lesson.

Thank you.

Asked 1 week ago
CécileKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hi David, 

There are different types of compound nouns and the lesson specifically concentrates on those which take prepositions.

You might find useful reading my following answer to a similar question which lists some using a hyphen -

https://progress.lawlessfrench.com/questions/view/are-these-examples-of-compound-nouns

In the case of 'boîte à bijoux', normally when you can say - for something - it will be 'à' in French as in:

Cuillère à soupe, brosse à dents, verre à vin

But I am sure there will be some exceptions!

Hope this helps! 

DavidB1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Thanks Cécile. C'est possible que vous ne dormez jamais ?  Ou au moins, levez vous un peu plus tard dans le weekend.  Mais ...

While your answer works for boîte à ... and brosse à ... and cuillère à ... 

"when you can say - for something -" seems to apply to all my examples just as well.

Are there any general rules or guidelines for à vs. de with noun+noun constructions ?

I guess most of my prior learning and examples were sports related, which all seem to be "de".

CécileKwiziq team member

Re-bonjour David!

Effectivement,  je suis 'une lève-tôt' mais je dors suffisamment, ne vous inquiètez- pas...

Le contraire est 'un/e couche-tard'

Revenons à nos moutons -

There are no rule, just categories as far as I am aware but it would be good to develop the lesson as this has been asked before.

We are all so inundated with work that it wont happen anytime soon.

It is so odd that we say -

un arrêt d'autobus but le centre-ville.

Grévisse says that it is mainly the preposition 'de' which is used but you can have other prepositions like 'à, autour, contre par, pour, sans' etc.

une planche à dessin a drawing board

un sirop contre la toux = a cough mixture

but 

un cor de chasse = a hunting horn

etc.

Hope that helps!

baseball cap, tennis racquet, door knob

Could you add some clarification re: wedding bells, baseball cap, tennis racquet, door knob, golf club, soccer ball, soccer field, sunglasses, Christmas tree, water tank, bus stop, fire truck, etc.

By your lesson, these should all be “à” (what something is designed for), but in fact this whole genre is “de”.

Specifically, why is it “boîte à bijoux” and not “boîte de bijoux” ? Other than convention.

Clearly, these are not just a few exceptions, but an entire class of compound nouns (open form, noun+noun) that is not covered in the lesson.

Thank you.

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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 9 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 1 year 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 1 year 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 2 years 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 2 years 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 3 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 3 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 !
DavidB1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Could you add some clarification re: wedding bells, baseball cap, tennis racquet, door knob, golf club, soccer ball, soccer field, sunglasses, Christmas tree, water tank, bus stop, fire truck, etc.

By your lesson, these should all be “à” (what something is designed for), but in fact this whole genre is “de”.

Specifically, why is it “boîte à bijoux” and not “boîte de bijoux” ? Other than convention.

Clearly, these are not just a few exceptions, but an entire class of compound nouns (open form, noun+noun) that is not covered in the lesson.

Thank you.

DavidB1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Put in wrong place

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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