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Learning French: The Difference Between "En" and "Dans"

Updated on May 8, 2011

This article assumes that you are familiar with French language. And if you are, then you have undoubtedly grappled with some of the more "tricky" aspects of French grammar. Briefly, both French prepositions en and dans translate to the English preposition "in."

In expressions of time, En refers to the amount of time it takes or took to do a particular thing.

Here are a few examples:Je l'ai fait en deux heures or in English, "I did it in two hours." So the question you are answering here is really "how long did it take to do it?" Well, it took two hours. So the test or rather what to ask yourself in order to determine if en or dans is appropriate is "how long will it take or did it take to do something." En is used almost exclusively with the present and past tenses.

Another example: Je peux finir mes devoirs en 5 minutes. Or in English, "I can finish my homework in 5 minutes." And again, the question you are answering is "how long will it take to do the homework?" And the answer is "5 minutes."

En is also used to express the month, season, or year in which a particular action takes place.

An example: En hiver il fait froid or in English, " In winter it is cold" with hiver being the word for "winter" in this sentence. Or in the sentence En mai il fait beau or in English "In May the weather is nice" with mai being the word for May. The exception is au printemps which translates in English as "in Spring." And en is used to express "going to" or "in" a particular country, state, or province. This one, however, is tricky because this refers to countries, states, and provinces that are "feminine" in French. An example: Je voyage en France or in English "I am travelling in France or to France." In French, France is a feminine noun - la France. With countries that have a masculine gender such as le Canada or "Canada," the preposition au is used which is a contraction of a le so we have the following: Je vais au Canada or "I am going to Canada." Not to confuse matters more, but countries such as "The United States" which are plural use aux or the contraction of a les and this produces the following: Je vais aux Etats-Unis or "I am going to the United States." And lastly, en can mean "in" or "to" in nouns that do not require an article such as en classe "in class" or en tailleur "dressed up, in dress clothes, etc."

So where does dans figure into all of this? Dans indicates the amount of time before something happens or will occur. An example of this is: Je partirai dans trois jours or in English, "I will leave in three days." And the question you ask yourself is "how long will it be before I leave?" and the answer is "three days." Or another example: Tu vas revenir dans cinq jours or in English, "You are going to come back in five days." And again the question to ask is "how long will it be before you come back?" and the answer is "five days." Dans will always be used with the future tense, and if you think about it, it makes sense given that dans answers the question "how long before something happens or occurs?"

Other uses of Dans

Dans is used to express the notion of "in a particular decade." An example: Dans les annees 80 or in English "in the 1980s." That being noted, you will also hear pendant les annees 80 which literally means "during the 1980s" used synonymously.

As a preposition of place or of motion, dans in used in the following ways: Je suis dans la classe or in English "I am in class." And dans is also used in the following: Il est descendu dans la cave or in English, "he went down in the basement."

Ok, take a breath - it's not that hard. And remember, this distinction can make expressing yourself, at least in French, more precise. Consider the following: Je peux le fair en deux minutes or Je peux le faire dans deux minutes or in English, "I can do it in two minutes," but this statement in English is ambiguous - it could mean "it will take me two minutes to do it" or "I will be able to do it in two minutes." In French, the prepositions can and do make all the difference.


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    • DTR0005 profile image

      Doug Robinson 7 years ago from Midwest

      Good catch - I have made the correction. Thank you

    • profile image

      Ze French Prof 7 years ago

      Just notice a slight mistake in the beginning:

      "Here are a few examples:Je l'ai fait dans deux heures or in English, "I did it in two hours." "

      the correct french will be: je l'ai fait en deux heures= it took me 2 hours to do it. or je le fais dans deux heures = I will start in 2 hours time.