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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 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!


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)


Q&A

Rita

Kwiziq community member

27 April 2018

1 reply

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

Chris

Kwiziq community member

27 April 2018

27/04/18

Hi Rita,


it is le chocolat, hence au chocolat


-- Chris (not a native speaker). 

Shruti

Kwiziq community member

1 April 2018

2 replies

We can also say

une tasse à café. 

A cup for coffee?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

2 April 2018

2/04/18

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


-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

17 May 2018

17/05/18

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!

Nev

Kwiziq community member

21 December 2017

2 replies

Should plumeun in feather pillow be plumeux?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

21 December 2017

21/12/17

I suspect that there is a missing "/" separating the two possible answers:

"un oreiller en plume / un oreiller de plume".

-- Chris.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

21 December 2017

21/12/17

Yes indeed !

Thanks to you both, the example has now been amended :)

Merci et à bientôt !

Rene

Kwiziq community member

20 October 2017

1 reply

A doubt.

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

Ron

Kwiziq community member

21 October 2017

21/10/17

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.

Surendra

Kwiziq community member

27 April 2017

2 replies

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'

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

28 April 2017

28/04/17

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 !

Surendra

Kwiziq community member

28 April 2017

28/04/17

It is clear now, thank you.

Thekla

Kwiziq community member

15 March 2017

2 replies

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

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

15 March 2017

15/03/17

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

Kwiziq community member

18 March 2017

18/03/17

Merci, à bientôt

Joakim

Kwiziq community member

25 December 2016

1 reply

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?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

27 December 2016

27/12/16

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 !
Clever stuff underway!