Common mistakes with French prepositions

Common mistakes with French prepositions

by Audrey Sivadier

Updated November 25, 2020

Prepositions are those little words that we use to give additional information about time, place, means… We start using them at the beginning of our language journey and then it gets more and more complex. Here are a few tips to avoid making mistakes!

Prepositions of place in French

Languages are all different and there will always be different perspectives and different ways of looking at things. This is the case with prepositions of place. 

a Chambre à Arles, by Vincent van Gogh, from C2RMF.jpg

Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, 1889

To describe Van Gogh’s above painting you might say:

La chaise est sous la fenêtre. La chaise est devant la porte. – The chair is under the window. The chair is in front of the door. 

Le verre est sur la table. Le chapeau est derrière le lit.  – The glass is on the table.  The hat is behind the bed.

Le livre est dans le tiroir.  – The book is in the drawer.

For the notions of laterality and distance, there are additional prepositions:

Le lit est à droite. La table est à gauche. La chaise est à côté de la table. Le miroir est près de la fenêtre. La fenêtre est loin de la porte. – The bed is onthe right. The table is on the left. The chair is next to the table. The mirror is near the window. The window is far from the door.

Common mistakes using French prepositions

The preposition ” chez ” is only used with people. It comes from the Latin “casa” which means “house”.

Je rentre chez moi. – I’m going home.

Il va chez le docteur. (chez le coiffeur, chez le fromager…) He goes to the doctor. (to the hairdresser, to the cheesemaker…)

This is a typical French mistake: some French people say “au”, but they have to say “chez”.

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Countries and prepositions in French

Another well-known puzzle for beginners who are learning French is: which prepositions to use with the countries? In French, each country has a gender. This means that the countries are either feminine or masculine. How do you know this? You have to look at how the word ends:

– Countries ending with an “e” are feminine.

– The others are masculine.

Well, not always… There are exceptions:  le Mexique, le Cambodge… 

And some are plural: les États-Unis, les Pays-Bas… (United States, Netherlands…).

In the following table, the left-hand column is to be used with verbs of displacement or to be/live and the right-hand column with verbs speaking about the origin.

Feminine countriesMasculine countries
Je suis / Je vais / J’habite…Je viens Je suis / Je vais / J’habite…Je viens
En France
En Italie
En Colombie
En Australie
De France
De Colombie
De France
De Colombie
Du Cameroun
Du Brésil
Du Mexique
Du Canada

With cities, it’s simpler, you should always use the preposition ” à “.

– J’habite à Paris. (I live in Paris).

Prepositions of time in French

Again, this is a concept that will require the use of different prepositions. When we talk about time, months and seasons, we are not talking about the same thing, so the prepositions change.

With the time: Je vais chez le docteur à midi, à 14h… – I go to the doctor at noon, at 2pm…

With the months: je vais chez mes grands-parents en janvier / au mois de janvier. – I go to my grandparents’ house in January.

With the seasons: en hiver / en été / en automne – in winter / in summer / in autumn.

Seasons beginning with a vowel or aspirated h) but *careful* au printemps – in spring – season beginning with a consonant.

Over the years: en 1880, en 2021… – in 1880, in 2021

With the centuries: au XIXème siècle – in the 19th century.

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When talking about duration, errors often occur in distinguishing between « dans », « en » and « pendant ». 

– Je viendrai te voir dans 2 jours. – I’ll come and see you in 2 days.

– J’ai terminé ces devoirs en 2 jours. I studied for 2 days. The emphasis is on the duration – speed or length – and the arduousness of the work.

The French also have a singular way of counting, especially their days and weeks. A Frenchman will never say: « je suis en vacances pendant 7 jours. » (I’m on holiday for 7 days.) But he will say: « je suis en vacances pendant 8 jours »  (“I’m on holiday for 8 days” – for a week!) or « je suis en vacances pendant 15 jours »  (” I’m on holiday for 15 days” – for a fortnight!).

Transport prepositions

To avoid making mistakes, it is important to remember that means of transport in French fall into two categories: closed and open vehicles.

We will say: « je vais au travail en bus, en voiture, en avion, en bateau, en hélicoptère… » – “I go to work by bus, car, plane, boat, helicopter…”.

But: « je vais au travail à vélo, à moto, à cheval… » – “I go to work by bike, motorbike, horseback…”. (The French often say ” en moto “, which is not correct).

Finally, if you are in the desert, you should know that we say: « je vais au travail à dos de chameau ! » – “I’m going to work on the back of a camel! »

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Verbs and prepositions in French

Last but not least, French verbs are often accompanied by their favourite prepositions. That’s why if you are learning a new verb, learn which preposition it goes with!

Some verbs with the preposition « à »Some verbs with the preposition « de »
Apprendre à
Aider à
Commencer à
Hésiter à
Jouer à (a game)
S’intéresser à
Ressembler à
Téléphoner à
Accepter de
Attendre de
Arrêter de
Continuer de
Décider de
Essayer de
Éviter de
Jouer de (an instrument)
Oublier de
Rêver de
Se souvenir de

Well? Êtes-vous prêts à aller en avion au Mexique au printemps pour prendre 15 jours de vacances sous le soleil et apprendre à parler une nouvelle langue avec Lingoda ? – Are you ready to fly to Mexico in the spring to take a 15-day holiday under the sun and learn to speak a new language with Lingoda?

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