Expressing quantities is quite an important part of daily conversation. In French, the key to understanding how to express quantity is a question of the specification of quantity: a precise quantity, or a vague one. Most of the times, you won't be able to translate word-for-word from English, so you need to understand the logic to choosing the correct word in French.
Quantities in French
There are several ways to express quantities in French:
- Numbers: The most precise way to express a quantity
- Expressions of quantity: "A little bit of", or "many", or "half;" these can be more or less precise
- An adjective of quantity: "Aucun" (none) or "plusieurs" (several)
- An indefinite article: A, an
- A partitive article: Some, any
Unspecified Singular Quantity: Du, de La, de L'-
Unspecified quantities represent the notion of “some” in English, but we don't always use the word “some.” When you are talking about a portion of one item (food, like "some bread"), or something that cannot be quantified (quality, like "some patience"), use what the French call "a partitive article."
- du (+ masculine word)
- de la (+ feminine word)
- de l' - (followed by a vowel)
- Je voudrais de l'eau, s'il vous plait (some water-maybe a glass, or maybe a bottle)
- Le professeur a de la patience (patience-you are not saying how much patience the teacher has, just that he/she has some)
- Voici du gâteau (some of the cake; not the whole cake)
In these examples, "some" applies to a singular item. "Here is some cake," rather than "some cakes," which we will study below. Here, we are talking about a portion of one item-a portion that is vague, not specific. The articles du, de la, and de l'- are called "partitive articles" in French.
It is important to note that these articles are often used after the verbs vouloir (“Je voudrais des chaussures noires”) or avoir (“J'ai des chats”) and with food (we use these all the time with food, so it's a good topic for practice).
More Than One, but Unspecified Plural Quantity: Des
To describe an unspecified plural quantity, use “des” (both feminine and masculine), which tells you there is more than one item, but it is a vague plural quantity (it could be 2, could be 10,000 or more). This “des” usually applies to whole items, that you could count, but decided not to.
- J'ai des Euros (more than one, but I am not telling exactly how many)
- Je vais acheter des pommes (I'm going to buy apples. In English, we'd probably won't use any words before "apples." Maybe "some," but in French, you need to use “des”)
- Elle a des amis formidables (she has some great friends)
In English, the word “some” is used for unspecified quantity (I would like some milk) but also as a derogative adjective (he went home with some girl). In French, you would never say “il est rentré chez lui avec de la fille,” as he didn't go home with an unspecified quantity of a girl. So be careful, word-for-word translation doesn't always work!
The same thing goes for the example, “elle a des amis formidables.” In English, if you say “she has some great friends,” you'd be strongly implying that her other friends are not so great. In French, we use an article where, in English, you'd probably use nothing: “she has great friends”.
Some food items are usually referred to as singular, although they are really plural. Like "rice." There are many grains of rice, but it's rare that you are counting them one by one. Thus, rice is considered a single ingredient, expressed using the singular masculine, “le riz”. If you need to count each grain, then you'd use the expression, “grain de riz” - "Il y a 3 grains de riz sur la table" (there are 3 grains of rice on the table). But, more often, you'd say something like “j'achète du riz” ( I am buying some rice).