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FALF Guide to French Prépositions de lieu

French Prepositions of Place

 

There’s no escaping them. They’re all over the place. So here’s the ultimate guide to help YOU master French prépositions de lieu, with a list of the most common ones and a troubleshooting section at the end!

 

Introduction

 

Imagine trying to describe where an object is in English. “The letter is on the table, next to the TV. See the stack of envelopes in between the remote control and the picture frame? It’s inside the blue envelope. There it is!”

 

See all those italicized words? Those are prepositions—specifically, prepositions of place. And we use them all the time! But what do they do?

    • They help us relate one thing to another in terms of place / position / location.
    • They answer the question, “Where?”

 

Naturally, French prépositions de lieu exist too. Dans, sur, sous, and all their friends! To help you master these basic positioning words, let’s enlist the help of le renard et la boîte.

 

Basics: Où est le renard ? Where is the fox?

Visual lesson of French Prepositions of Place

Basics: Constructing Sentences

 

So, how does this work? To construct a basic sentence, we’ll need at least four parts, structured this way (spoiler: it’s similar to English):

 

Subject  +  Verb  +  Preposition of Place  +  Complement

 

  • In this case, the fox, or le renard, is the subject. ?
  • To keep things simple, we’ll use the verb être, or “to be.”
  • The complement is the box, or la boîte — and this is introduced by the preposition.

 

OUR GOAL: Situate the fox, based on the box.

Le renard est entre les boîtes.
The fox is between the boxes.

Le renard est à côté de la boîte. 
The fox is next to the box.

Le renard est en face de l’autre renard.
The fox is opposite the other fox.
* Note: Here, the complement is the other fox, as depicted above.

Le renard est dans la boîte.
The fox is in the box.

Le renard est à gauche de la boîte.  ≠  Le renard est à droite de la boîte.
The fox is to the left of the box. ≠  The fox is to the right of the box.

Le renard est derrière la boîte.    Le renard est devant la boîte.
The fox is behind the box.  ≠  The fox is in front of the box.

Le renard est près de la boîte.  ≠  Le renard est loin de la boîte.
The fox is near the box.  ≠  The fox is far from the box.

Le renard est sur la boîte.    Le renard est sous la boîte.
The fox is on the box.  ≠  The fox is under the box.

Le renard est au-dessus de la boîte.  ≠  Le renard est au-dessous de la boîte.
The fox is above the box.  ≠  The fox is below the box.

 

PRO TIP :

? Save brain power by learning new vocabulary and concepts in chunks or pairs! Above, the  sign marks les contraires, or opposites.

 

Common French Prépositions de lieu

 

Les Prépositions de lieu
SIMPLES
à at / in
chez at the home / store / business of
dans in, inside
derrière behind
devant in front of
en in
entre between
sous under
sur on
vers toward
COMPOSÉES
à côté de next to
à droite de to the right of
à gauche de to the left of
à l'intérieur de inside of
à l'extérieur de
en dehors de
hors de
outside of
au-dessus de above
au-dessous de below
au bord de on the edge of
au centre de at the center of
au milieu de in the middle of
au coin de in the corner of
au pied de at the base / foot of
autour de around
en haut de at the top of
en bas de at the bottom of
en face de opposite, across from
loin de far from
près de near, near to

Important Notes

 

Contractions
Remember, de + le and de + les must contract to du and des respectively; this is mandatory.
.
Examples:
— à côté du renard 
(= de + le renard)
— près des boîtes (= des + les boîtes)

 

Invariability
Though the required contractions above make it appear as if we’re concerned with gender and number agreement, French prépositions de lieu themselves are invariable. This means they’re not affected by gender or number.
.
⚠️ So, as prepositions, devant will never become devante, loin de will never become loins de, etc. Don’t be tempted to make them feminine and/or plural!

 

Figurative Use
Some of these French prépositions de lieu can be used literally and figuratively.
.
Examples:
à gauche de and à droite de can describe positions along the political spectrum.
au-dessus de and au-dessous de can describe a superiority or inferiority of position in concepts like age, rank, level, score, temperature, etc.
chez can indicate being commonly found in a person or group, or being the work of a person or group.

 

A Closer Look: Simple vs. Compound Prepositions

As you might have noticed, some prepositions consist of a single word, while others are phrases. Here’s how to make sense of the two groups:

 

    • Les prépositions simples de lieu
      These are simples or “simple” because they only have one word.
    • Les prépositions composées de lieu
      These are composées or “compound” because each is composed of a group of words. Each group actually contains:
      .
      1.  
      un adverbe de lieu (Adverb of Place) such as loin, à droite, or au-dessous
      2.  une prépositionde (in most cases)
      .
      The compound preposition also goes by other names: la locution prépositive, la locution prépositionnelle, or la préposition complexe. So don’t panic if your teacher calls it one of those instead!

 

⭐ Why does this matter? Often, it’ll help you distinguish between two very similar-looking pieces of grammar: prépositions de lieu and adverbes de lieu.
? See “dans vs. dedans … loin de vs. loin” in the Troubleshooting section.

 

Troubleshooting

 

? sur vs. au-dessus de
sur
— the subject is on something and touching the surface of it. There’s emphasis on this contact.
au-dessus de — the subject is above something, not touching it.

 

? sous vs. au-dessous de
sous 
— the subject is under something, possibly hidden by it.
* Note: though its opposition to sur suggests it, sous does not necessarily imply contact.
au-dessous de — the subject is below something, not touching it. This implies a greater distance than sous.

? au-dessus de vs. au-dessous de
Can’t remember which is which? Use visual clues!
Au-dessous de has an extra letter (the O). Imagine that this makes it heavier so it sinks below au-dessus de.
— Or associate au-dessus de with sur, as both have the SU and place the subject at a SUperior position. As for au-dessous de, it contains sous, and both terms place the subject at a lower position.
.
Another common issue is pronunciation, which provides one of the few clear distinctions between these opposite terms. It’s therefore important to distinguish between the U sound ([y] in the phonetic alphabet) in dessus and the OU sound (or [u]) in dessous

? sur vs. sûr
sur — is a préposition de lieu and thus invariable.
sûr (e)(s) — is an adjectif meaning sure (certain) or safe (secure). Note the accent circonflexe (ˆ) above the U and the need for agreement in gender and quantity.

? dans vs. dedanssur vs. dessus / loin de vs. loin / au-dessus de vs. au-dessus / etc.
This confusion stems from the similarities between some prépositions de lieu and their corresponding adverbes de lieu. As noted above, prépositions composées de lieu even contain adverbes de lieu! No wonder they look similar! And with some prépositions simples, like derrière and devant, the corresponding adverb is the same word!

⭐ How do you tell prépositions de lieu and adverbes de lieu apart?
The main difference is that a preposition introduces a complement. So it needs something after it and, therefore, can’t end a clause or sentence. On the other hand, an adverb doesn’t need a complement (the complement is known to all and implied). As a result, it can be placed at the end of a clause or sentence. Let’s see how this works…

 

(with preposition) Le renard est dans la boîte.
(with adverb) Le renard est dedans.   * The box is implied!
In English: The fox is inside the box. vs. The fox is inside.

(with preposition) Le renard est à gauche de la boîte.
(with adverb) Le renard est à gauche.
In English: The fox is to the left of the box. vs. The fox is to the left.

(with preposition) Le renard est derrière la boîte.
(with adverb) Tu vois la boîte ? Le renard est derrière.
In English: The fox is behind the box. vs. You see the box? The fox is behind (it).

 

? derrière vs. derrière vs. le derrière
Oh boy, this is a good one.
derrière — is a préposition de lieu, but…
derrière — is also an adverbe de lieu.
le derrière — as a noun, this can mean “the buttocks” (as it often does in English) or the back or rear side of something (a head, a building, a car, etc.)

 

Conclusion

 

It’ll take time and regular exposure to fully understand the power of les prépositions de lieu—or even just memorize them! But it’s definitely worth the effort to learn all that you can about this important part of speech. They may be small, but they’re mighty!

 

The key takeaways from this lesson:

 

    • French prépositions de lieu, or prepositions of place, help us situate one thing in terms of another—they show a relationship based on location.
    • They can be split into two groups: simples and composées (simple or compound).
    • They need a complement and therefore cannot end a sentence—a characteristic that distinguishes them from Adverbs of Place, which often look similar.
    • Some require contractions (dele = du, de + les = des).
    • … However, they remain invariable.
    • Some can be used literally and figuratively.
    • Tip: Learn them in pairs (by opposites), if possible.

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Mastered les prépositions de lieu ? Looking for more French grammar lessons?

Find all my posts on French grammar right here! See the patterns, make the connections, and avoid the traps! Make sense of it all and discover the fun in la grammaire!

 

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