On the so-called ‘partitive article’ in French

This text discusses the connection between the picture above and ‘particle articles’ in French.

The term ‘partitive article’ traditionally refers to the words du / de la / de l’ / des ‘of.the’ in French, which look like a combination of the preposition de ‘of’ and the definite article. Since the above photo illustrates pears and apples, that is, des poires and des pommes, you may think that I will compare nominal phrases with a partitive article and bare nouns. As this is the topic of a workshop organised at the University of Zurich in September (Bare nouns vs. ‘partitive articles’: Disentangling functions, convenors: T. Ihsane & E. Stark, SLE 50, 11 September 2017), I will focus on a different aspect of the puzzle.

Assuming that a partitive article can be identified on the basis of its morphology, du in (1)-(3) is a partitive article.

(1)  Ma sœur   a   la recette du     gâteau.               ‘My sister has the recipe of the cake.’
     my sister has the recipe of.the cake
(2)  J’ai   mangé du     gâteau (que ma sœur  a  préparé). ‘I ate from the cake (that my sister prepared).’
     I have eaten of.the cake   that my sister has prepared
(3)  Mon frère   a   acheté du     gâteau.                 ‘My brother bought (some) cake.’
     my  brother has bought of.the cake


All three examples contain du gâteau ‘of.the cake’. However, if we consider the interpretation of these sentences, it is clear that we are dealing with different constituents du gâteau: in (1), du gâteau functions as the complement of recette ‘recipe’, with the preposition de connecting the cake to the recipe; in (2), when the meaning of the sentence is as specified in the English translation, du gâteau is literally ‘from/of the cake’ where ‘the cake’ is the whole and de a preposition linking an undefined quantity of this cake (not overtly realised) to this whole; this is a real partitive interpretation expressing a part-whole relation as in un peu de ce gâteau ‘a little of this cake’; in (3), du gâteau is an indefinite nominal phrase whose meaning is ‘(some) cake (not yet mentioned in the discourse)’ and which does not imply any reference to a whole cake already defined. In this case, du is an article on a par with un(e) ‘a’ as the preposition de has been grammaticalized (Carlier 2007, Carlier/Lamiroy 2014). Note that this indefinite interpretation is also available for (2) (I ate/had (some) cake) if we omit the information in parenthesis; this means that (2) is ambiguous.

That du gâteau in (2) differs from du gâteau in (3) is illustrated below (adapted from Kupferman 1979:7): the relative pronoun dont can only be used with a prepositional phrase, as in (2), in opposition to (3):

(4) J’ai   mangé du      gâteau,      a) dont     /   b) ce   qu’   il a  aussi mangé d’ailleurs.
    I have eaten of.the  cake            of.which /      this which he has also eaten besides
(5) Il a   acheté du     gâteau       a) *dont    /   b) ce   que  nous avons aussi acheté d’ailleurs.
    he has bought of.the cake            of.which /      this which we  have  also  bought besides


In sum, in examples (1)-(3), only (2) has a partitive meaning and only (3) contains an article du (whose meaning is not partitive). This means that the term ‘partitive article’ is a misnomer, which may be misleading (cf. Delfitto/Schroten 1991, Carlier/Melis 2006, Ihsane 2008, Herslund 2008, and Stark 2006, 2008a,b). Consequently, if we do not want to compare apples and pears in an analysis of ‘particle articles’, it is important to be aware of the differences illustrated above (among others). Partitivity, including ‘partitive articles’, is one of the topics examined by the members of the research group SyNoDe at the URPP Language and Space.