France, the cradle of the French language, is known for its fashion. Even French words like to feel stylish, which is why they sometimes dress themselves up with apostrophes and accent marks. And if you want to learn French, you’ll have to get to know these “stylish” words very well.
When the simple French syllable “la” wants to make its mark on the marquee of written language, it might be spelled la, là, l’a, or l’as. La, là, l’a, and l’as sound identical in French, but they all mean different things.
Like “its” and “it’s” in English, it’s the spelling – and the context – that gives each of these words its meaning.
We’ll look at each of the styles of writing la in French and find out how each one is used, as well as what it can mean in different contexts.
La: “The,” “It,” and “Her” (Definite article and direct object pronoun)
Like “basic black,” the naturally elegant la matches well with many other words but is versatile enough to have a few meanings.
The first meaning of la in French is simple: If you see it right before a singular, feminine word – even one modified by an adjective – it just means “the.”
- la petite fille (the little girl)
- la femme (the woman)
- la mère (the mother)
- la sœur cadette (the younger sister)
- la chaussette (the sock)
- la voiture (the car)
- la grande salle (the great room)
When it’s not used to mean “the,” la can also mean “it.” You might see it referred to as a “direct object pronoun” when it’s used this way.
Using la as a direct object pronoun is a two-part process. First of all, a feminine, singular object needs to be explicitly named. For instance:
- Je monte la colline. (I climb the hill.)
In this first part of the process, the la right before the noun will mean “the.”
Next, the feminine object can be replaced by la:
- Je la monte. (I climb it.)
In this case, la (it) has replaced la colline (the hill).
A couple of rules need to be followed. The noun replaced by la has to be singular and feminine, and the verb following la must start with a consonant (In a moment, we’ll look at what happens when the verb starts with a vowel).
Here are a few more examples of la as “it”:
- Il conduit la voiture. Il la conduit. (He drives the car. He drives it.)
- Nous buvons la bière. Nous la buvons. (We drink the beer. We drink it.)
- Vous mangez la pomme. Vous la mangez. (You eat the apple. You eat it.)
As you can see, the direct object pronoun in French goes before the verb, not after it (as it would in English).
If the “it” in question were masculine, we would use le instead:
Elle lit le journal. Elle le lit. (She reads the newspaper. She reads it.)
When la means “her,” the same pattern is used:
Elles voient la fille. Elles la voient. (They see the girl. They see her.)
L’enseignante félicite l’étudiante de sa bonne note. Elle la félicite. (The teacher congratulates the student for her good grade. She congratulates her.)
Tanguy nourrit la chatte. Il la nourrit. (Tanguy feeds the cat. He feeds her.)
Le chat chasse la souris. Il la chasse. (The cat chases the mouse. He chases her.)
L’as and l’a: Avoir (to have) with a direct object
The next French “la” styles get gussied up with an apostrophe and accessorize with the verb avoir (to have).
To better understand l’as and l’a, we’re going to break them down a little.
By itself, as would be part of the phrase tu as, which would mean “you [singular, informal] have.” Similarly, a would be part of the phrase il a (he/it has) or elle a (she/it has).
Now, we’ll put an l’ in front of “have” or “has.” The l’ will mean “it” in these phrases:
- tu l’as (you have it)
- il l’a (he/it has it)
- elle l’a (she/it has it)
The “it” in question can be masculine or feminine. In either case, the noun will be represented by l’ (rather than by le or la). This is because both le and la become l’ when placed right before a vowel.
This same pattern is followed for other verbs that begin with a vowel, such as écrire (to write) and utilise (to use). When you see l’as and l’a, though, you’ll know that the verb is avoir (to have).
In each of the following examples, note the difference in word order between French and English. Again, the direct object pronoun is placed before the verb in French.
Here’s how l’as and l’a can be used in the present tense of avoir:
- Tu as le stylo. Tu l’as. (You have the pen. You have it.)
- Tu as la brosse. Tu l’as. (You have the brush. You have it.)
- Elle a la tasse. Elle l’a. (She has the cup. She has it.)
- Il l’a maintenant. (He has it now. / He’s got it now.)
L’as and l’a can also be used in the passé composé (simple past / present perfect tense) of avoir:
- Tu as lu le livre. Tu l’as lu. (You read the book. You read it.)
- Tu as chanté la chanson. Tu l’as chantée.* (You sang the song. You sang it.)
- Il a vu la voiture. Il l’a vue.* (He saw the car. He saw it.)
- Elle a mangé le pain. Elle l’a mangé. (She ate the bread. She ate it.)
*When writing, it’s important to remember that the past participle of the verb will need to agree with the gender of the noun being replaced by l’. This is because l’ is a direct object pronoun placed in front of the verb. So, when l’as or l’a are referring back to a feminine noun – like chanson (song) or voiture (car) – the past participles of their respective verbs get an additional -e at the end.
In these examples, when chanté (sang) becomes chantée and vu (saw) becomes vue, it’s because their direct objects (chanson and voiture, respectively) are singular and feminine. When a direct object pronoun replaces a singular masculine noun, like livre (book) or pain (bread), there are no changes to the past participle.
In addition to being part of a direct object pronoun / avoir combo, as is also a masculine noun that means “ace.” L’as can be the ace in a deck of cards, or a flying ace:
- L’as du ciel a joué l’as de piques pendant le jeu de cartes. Il l’a joué pour gagner le tournoi de poker. (The flying ace played the ace of spades during the card game. He played it to win the poker tournament.)
Là: “Here,” “There,” “When,” and “Where”
Là in French usually means “there,” but it also can mean “here”:
- Clémence met le livre là, sur l’étagère à livres. (Clémence places the book there, on the bookshelf.)
- Nous n’étions pas là quand elle est venue chez nous. (We weren’t here when she came to our house.)
Whether it’s “here” or “there,” the accent grave (grave accent) on the a seems to be pointing to a place. It might also remind you of the word voilà, a contraction of the words for “look there” in French.
Là is part of several set expressions in French. These can refer to objects, locations, points in time, and even abstract ideas:
- celle-là / celles-là (that one / those ones [feminine])
- celui-là / ceux-là (that one / those ones [masculine])
- c’est là (that’s where; that’s when)
- C’est là que j’avais écrit le roman. (That’s where I wrote the novel.)
- C’est là qu’elle a pensé à lui. (That’s when she thought of him.)
- là-haut (up there)
- là-bas (over there; yonder; down there)
- là-dedans (in there; in that)
- J’ai trouvé du réconfort là-dedans. (I found comfort in that.)
- jusque-là (up until there; until that point / until then)
- Jusque-là, je croyais qu’il aurait gagné. (Until that point, I thought that he would have won.)
- çà et là (here and there; hither and thither)
- d’ici là (by then; in the meantime)
- de là (hence; thus)
Là can also be used for emphasis:
- Là, je suis d’accord. (There, I agree. / On that point, I am in agreement.)
- C’est quoi, là ? (What’s that, then?)
- Oh, là, là ! (My goodness! That’s incredible! Oh, dear me!)
- Hè là ! (Good grief!)
La: A simple sound with many meanings
The simplest-sounding words in a language can take on a wide array of meanings, and the French la / l’a / l’as / là quartet is no exception. When you’re trying to figure out which is which, don’t worry if you make a few mistakes along the way. Even native French speakers do.
Use spelling, punctuation, and context to understand the meanings of la, là, l’a, and l’as, and soon you’ll be using these words yourself with flawless francophone style.
Oh, là, là — tu l’as déjà ! (Oh, my goodness — you’ve got it already!)
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