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The preposition à : "to," "at," or "from"?

In her video on the famous French writer Victor Hugo, Patricia recites an excerpt from Hugo's poem "À l'Arc de Triomphe," a tribute to the city of Paris. The title of the poem means "At the Arc de Triomphe," but in another context à l'Arc de Triomphe could also mean "to the Arc de Triomphe." "At" and "to" are the most common meanings of the preposition à. But as we see several times in this video, à can also mean "from" when paired with certain verbs:

 

Cette science universelle Qu'il emprunte à tous les humains;

This universal science That it borrows from all humans;

Captions 46-47, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie de Victor Hugo

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Puis il rejette aux peuples blêmes Leurs sceptres et leurs diadèmes,

Then it rejects from pallid people Their scepters and their diadems,

Captions 48-49, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie de Victor Hugo

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À tout peuple, heureux, brave ou sage, Il prend ses lois, ses dieux, ses mœurs.

From all people, happy, brave, or wise, It takes their laws, their gods, their customs.

Captions 42-43, Le saviez-vous? - La poésie de Victor Hugo

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The verbal phrases here are emprunter quelque chose à quelqu'un (to borrow something from someone), prendre quelque chose à quelqu'un (to take something from someone), and rejeter quelque chose à quelqu'un (to reject something from someone). Though de is the more general equivalent of "from," you can't use de in verbal phrases like these–you have to use à.

 

The indirect object of these phrases (that is, what follows the à) is usually a person: "to x something from (à) someone."

 

Cacher (to hide) and voler (to steal) are two other common verbs that take à instead of de:

 

Je vais cacher les cadeaux de Noël à mes enfants.
I'm going to hide the Christmas gifts from my kids.

 

Marc a volé de l'argent à Sophie.
Marc stole money from Sophie.

 

Another very common verb with à is acheter (to buy). Be careful with this one though: acheter quelque chose à quelqu'un can either mean "to buy something from somebody" or "to buy something for somebody." You'll need to figure out the meaning from context:

 

Marc a acheté une bague au bijoutier.
Marc bought a ring from the jeweler. 

 

Marc a acheté une bague à Sophie.
Marc bought a ring for Sophie.

 

But with other verbs—such as permettre à (to enable/allow), rappeler à (to remind), and coûter à (to cost)—the à doesn't translate to anything at all:

 

De permettre à quarante mille femmes et jeunes filles au Sénégal, euh... d'être alphabétisées,

To enable forty thousand women and young girls in Senegal, uh... to become literate,

Captions 3-4, Alphabétisation - des filles au Sénégal

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Rappeler effectivement aux gens que ça reste des produits de confiserie, c'est pas une mauvaise mesure,

Indeed, to remind people that these are still sweets, it's not a bad idea,

Caption 14, Le Journal - Publicité anti-calories

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Et la différence, cela ne coûte quasiment rien à Martine.

And the difference costs Martine practically nothing.

Caption 57, Alsace 20 - Alsace: les plus belles déco de Noël!

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There are a good number of other verb phrases with à where the à means "from" or just isn't translated. Here are some of the more common ones:

 

arracher à (to remove from)
commander à (to order)
défendre à (to forbid/ban)
demander à (to ask)
enlever à (to take away from) 
épargner à (to spare)
éviter à (to save/spare)
garantir à (to guarantee)
pardonner à (to forgive)
refuser à (to refuse/deny)
souhaiter à (to wish)

Grammar

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