Using le, la, les with body parts and clothing (definite articles)

Unlike in English, when referring to someone's own body parts (or own pieces of clothing, such as pockets, clothes...), in French the definite article (le,la,l',les) is used rather than the possessive adjective (ma,mon, sa, son etc).

Ils ont les yeux fermés
They have their eyes closed

Nous sommes rentrés, les vêtements tout sales et les cheveux en bataille.
We came home, our clothes all dirty and our hair ruffled.

Croisons les doigts !
Fingers crossed! / Let's cross our fingers!

J’ai mal à la tête
My head hurts

Tu as les mains dans les poches.
You've got your hands in your pockets.

NOTE: You can also use the reflexive version of the verb when it exists (laver = to wash -> se laver = to wash oneself) to make the owner more clear:

Je me lave les pieds
I'm washing my feet

Nous nous grattons la tête
We're scratching our heads

Tu t'es cassé le bras
You broke your arm

Il se brosse les dents
He's brushing his teeth

ATTENTION: Using the reflexive form doesn't work systematically, especially when the reflexive form has a different meaning to the simple form, like lever = to lift/raise  vs  se lever = to get up.
In this case, you'll simply use the verb lever with the definite article: for French people, the possessive meaning would be obvious, unless a clear context states otherwise.

Jean lève la main
Jean raises his hand

Le monstre leva la tête du poisson mort, et le mangea.
The monster lifted the head of the dead fish, and ate it.

Elle a baissé la tête
She lowered her head


Note that it applies also to animals' bodies:

Mon chien agite la queue quand il me voit.
My dog wags his tail when he sees me.

 

As usual, there are special cases that don't follow that rule:
See Using mon, ma, mes, etc with parts of the body (possessive adjectives) .

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Tu t'es cassé le bras
You broke your arm


Jean lève la main
Jean raises his hand


Le monstre leva la tête du poisson mort, et le mangea.
The monster lifted the head of the dead fish, and ate it.


Il se brosse les dents
He's brushing his teeth


Croisons les doigts !
Fingers crossed! / Let's cross our fingers!


J’ai mal à la tête
My head hurts


Mon chien agite la queue quand il me voit.
My dog wags his tail when he sees me.


Je me lave les pieds
I'm washing my feet



Vous vous faites les ongles
You're doing your nails


Nous sommes rentrés, les vêtements tout sales et les cheveux en bataille.
We came home, our clothes all dirty and our hair ruffled.


Elle a baissé la tête
She lowered her head



Nous nous grattons la tête
We're scratching our heads


Tu as les mains dans les poches.
You've got your hands in your pockets.


Ils ont les yeux fermés
They have their eyes closed



Q&A

Ann

Kwiziq community member

20 May 2018

1 reply

Why does one say "je vais parler un peu français" or Je parle un peu le français when un peu is normally followed by de. Even if languages are usually

followed by an article, doesn't the un peu override that?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

21 May 2018

21/05/18

Bonjour Ann !

Have a look at the following lesson:
https://progress.lawlessfrench.com/revision/grammar/using-le-la-les-with-titles-languages-and-academic-subjects-definite-articles

Also there is a difference between "un peu" and "un peu de" in French, the same way as "a bit" and "a bit of" in English.

In this case, he's saying "I'm going to speak a bit French", i.e. "I'm going to speak French a little", hence "un peu".

I hope that's helpful!

Bonne journée !

Bruce

Kwiziq community member

16 February 2017

1 reply

La Saint-Valentin Video

Bonjour! I just watched the St. Valentine's video posted on the web site. Very funny! In the transcript below the video it says "elle cligne des yeux" and "je cligne des yeux". Shouldn't the article "les" be used instead? Listening to the video, I'm not sure if he says des or les. Merci!

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

16 February 2017

16/02/17

Bonjour Bruce ! The colloquial expression is indeed "cligner DES yeux" (= to blink), but I found that "cligner LES yeux" also exists to express "squinting", though we use more often "plisser les yeux" in this case. À bientôt !

diana

Kwiziq community member

9 December 2016

1 reply

in the writing challenge she says "mes jambes"- this is a mistake?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

9 December 2016

9/12/16

Bonjour Diana ! No, this isn't a mistake: here it's a case of needing to specify which legs as the context is not that explicit. For example, the verb here is not reflexive, as in "Je me brosse les dents." (I brush myself the teeth.), in which case we're given the owner of the teeth within the sentence. Here we need to say "mes jambes" as opposed to someone else's. Have a look at the related lesson: https://progress.lawlessfrench.com/revision/grammar/special-cases-when-you-can-use-mon-ma-mes-etc-with-parts-of-the-body-possessive-adjectives I hope that's helpful! À bientôt !

harriet

Kwiziq community member

12 September 2016

2 replies

Definite vs possessive with clothing

I was wondering if there's any rule as to when to use definite articles vs possessive adjectives with clothing? It seems like you use possessive adjectives for some things (mon pantalon, sa robe) but definite articles for others (les poches)?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

16 September 2016

16/09/16

Bonjour Harriet !

You use the definite article when expressing a statement in which the owner of the clothes is obvious in the given context:
"Adrien se leva, le pantalon sur les chevilles." (Adrien got up, his trousers on his ankles.)

These forms are used more often in such structures such as:  "<statement> + "," <description with clothing>"

When you have multiple people mentioned, and you need to specify whose clothes they are, then you will revert to possessive adjectives:
"Elle emprunte mon manteau." (She's borrowing my coat.)

Look at this example as well:
"Je mets mon pantalon." (I put my trousers on.)
->Here you need the possessive, as saying "I put the trousers on." could also be meaningful, and you need to give precisions as to specify the context. Moreover, this is not a description, but an action done on this piece of clothing.

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

harriet

Kwiziq community member

16 September 2016

16/09/16

Ah I see, that clears it up. Thanks Aurélie!

Jim

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2016

12 replies

Marc lève la tête.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2016

9/08/16

Hello Cheryl, Thanks for your answer. If we write "Marc lève la tête" we do not know which head is being lifted. This is why we have to write "Marc se lève la tête" to make it clear that Marc is lifting his own head. This is my problem. I'm looking for somebody to argue the grammar or at least my understanding of the grammar. I don't understand why simply writing "Marc lève la tête" makes it clear that it is his head that is being lifted. I'm being pedantic but this is what is bothering me about the grammar. Regards, Alan

Cheryl

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2016

9/08/16

I understand what you say. I feel the same way about many aspects of learning French. Hopefully one of the kwizik team will post you an explanation that clears this up for you. I'll read it too. Cheers, Cheryl

Cheryl

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2016

9/08/16

p.s. - had another thought about this: I think that this sentence can only mean that he lifts his own head, and that if it were necessary to say that he lifts her head, for example, then you would say: il lève sa tête. The definite article is still used with body parts, when using reflexive verbs, e.g. Tu te làves les mains? Cheryl

Cary

Kwiziq community member

16 August 2016

16/08/16

In your reply to Cheryl, your first paragraph is correct. Then you follow by saying you don't understand why " Marc lève la tête " makes it clear it is his own head. It does NOT make it clear. If Mark is a new father who is going to give his baby a bottle, you could correctly say " Marc lève la tête de l'enfant...." Or, as you wrote in your first paragraph, you could add " se " after Mark and that makes it clear it is his own head he is raising. Remember that the French do not use possessive pronouns with reflexive verbs. Instead, they use reflexive pronouns and definite articles. Reflexive verbs are hard at first---hang in there.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

17 August 2016

17/08/16

Hi Cary, My question came about because I got this part of the quiz wrong. Unfortunately, at this moment I'm still not clear for the reasons given in my reply to Cheryl. I am of the understanding that we need to say "Marc se lève la tête" to express that Marc raises his head. Apparently, this is not necessary -- we need only to say "Marc lève la tête" to express that Marc lifts his own head. I remain confused by this aspect and am looking forward to seeing an explanation from a grammar expert to help me clear this up. Thanks for your input. Regards, Alan

Cary

Kwiziq community member

17 August 2016

17/08/16

Hi Alan, I am not a grammar expert. Could you tell me exactly what was the question you missed on the quiz, and what was your answer? I hope someone else will reply soon. Cary

Jim

Kwiziq community member

17 August 2016

17/08/16

Cary, Thanks for your continued interest. Question - Marc lève la tête means? Answer - Marc lifts his head. This is what is bothering me -- I say that to express "Marc lifts his head" we need to write "Marc se lève la tête" so why not "se lève" rather than simply "lève"? Regards, Alan

Cary

Kwiziq community member

18 August 2016

18/08/16

I think this is exactly right. There could be a mistake with the answer on the test....perhaps the answer should be " Marc lifts the head."

Laura

Kwiziq language super star

23 August 2016

23/08/16

Bonjour Jim, Cheryl, Cary, Interesting discussion you've had. :-) Normally, Jim, you're right that you need a reflexive pronoun with parts of body, but lever is a particular case: se lever means "to get up" - it's a different meaning that "to lift." So if you say "il se lève la tête" it would mean something like "he gets up the head" = nonsense. Aurélie is going to add a note about this - thanks for bringing this up so we can make the lesson better than ever. :-)

Cary

Kwiziq community member

23 August 2016

23/08/16

So sorry to give you wrong info! Thanks for weighing in, Laura.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

23 August 2016

23/08/16

Thanks Laura, I did research this issue and found that my understanding of the verb se lever was mistaken. Once that I realised that se lever means "to get up" as you point out; I was satisfied that my original question was invalid. It has been informative though and we certainly learn by exercising these issues of grammar detail. Best regards to all who took part. Alan

Cheryl

Kwiziq community member

23 August 2016

23/08/16

Thank you Laura, for clarifying the distinction between 'lever' & 'se lever'. Cheryl
Clever stuff underway!