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French Subject Pronouns

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020

The list of French subject pronouns is je (j’), tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, elles. OK, but what does it mean?

1 – What is a subject?

The subject is the entity that does the action of the verb.

There is an easy way to find the subject of a sentence. First, find the verb. Then ask: “who + verb” or “what + verb”. The answer to that question will be your subject.

A subject is a noun or a pronoun. It can be a person, an animal, a thing, a place, an idea… so pretty much any entity!

Examples:

  1. I paint.
    Who paints? I paint. “I” is the subject.
  2. Camille is teaching French.
    Who is teaching? Camille is teaching. “Camille” is the subject.
  3. What is happening to Camille?
    What’s happening? What is happening. “What” is the subject (This one was trickier, wasn’t it?)
  4. Was freedom won easily?
    What was won? Freedom was won. “Freedom” is the subject.

Finding the subject of the sentence is fun isn’t it? The key is knowing by heart your subject question: “who + verb” or “what + verb”. The answer is the grammatical subject.

Now let’s see the pronouns you would use to replace a noun subject.

To replace a noun, you use a word called “a pronoun”.

2 – What is a Pronoun?

A pronoun replaces one or several nouns.

When you speak of John, instead of repeating his name over and over, you use the pronoun “he”.
John loves Paris. He loves Paris.

“Him”, “his” are other kinds of pronouns which could also refer to John.
Anne likes him.
This book is his.

You choose the correct pronoun according to the noun you want to replace and its grammatical value.
For example: “he” is used to replace a “masculine singular” noun (one man for example) which is subject of the verb; “him” when it’s an object pronoun; and “his” when it’s a possessive pronoun.

Today, we will concentrate on using subject pronouns. First, let’s see what the grammatical term “subject” means.

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3 – French Subject Pronouns – Singular

The list of French subject pronouns to replace one single entity is:

  • Je (or j’ + vowel or h) = I
  • Tu = you singular informal
  • Il = it, he
    Long “eel” sound
  • Elle = it, she
    Short clipped “el” sound
  • On – this one is more difficult to understand. It used to mean “ one “, but nowadays, “on” is used in casual French to say “ we “, instead of the now more formal/written form “ nous” (see below). Here is my article about the pronoun on in French.
  • Vous = you, one person, formal

“Vous” versus “tu” is a can of worms… there is a basic rule, and then many exceptions. I suggest you read my article about “Vous” versus “tu” in French – it makes for an interesting read!

About “tu”… there is only one form for “tu” and it’s “tu”. “T'” (t apostrophe) is short for “te”, another pronoun. Now… in informal texting, it’s common for people to misspell things and to write them like they sound. So you may see a “t'” where there should really be a “tu”. Don’t write your French essays that way… Your teacher won’t appreciate it!

4 – No “It” Subject Pronoun in French

There is no “it” form in French.
Everything: objects, concepts, animals, people are either a “he” or a “she”. This is a difficult concept for English speakers to grasp at first, and I’ve explained it clearly in this article: gender and number in French.

Subject pronouns, their use and pronunciation is explained in depth, with many examples and audio in my beginner French learning method.

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5 – French Subject Pronouns – Plural

If the pronoun replaces several entities, you’ll choose among the list of plural French subject pronouns.

  • Nous = we
    S is silent, but becomes Z when followed by a vowel or an h.
    Nowadays, “ nous “ is used in a formal context and in writing mostly. In conversation, we tend to use “on“.
  • Vous = you plural (both formal and informal)
    S is silent, but becomes Z + vowel or an h.
  • Ils = they, replacing masculine entities; or they, replacing a mix of masculine and feminine entities –
    S is silent, but becomes Z when it’s followed by a vowel or an h.
  • Elles = they, replacing feminine entities ONLY –
    S is silent, but becomes Z when it’s followed by a vowel or an h.

In pronunciation (except when they are followed by a word starting by a vowel or an h):

  • “Il” = “Ils” = eel,
  • “Elle” = “Elles” = L
  • Do not pronounce the S to remember the spelling; it would mess up your pronunciation!

As you now see, the French subject pronoun “vous” could replace different categories of people:

  1. one person, “formal” : for example, the manager of a firm you work with.
  2. several people “formal”: clients, adults you meet for the first time…
  3. several people “informal”: your friends, children…

Now this is the theory. You need practice.

Understanding the use of the French subject pronouns is among the first few steps of your French journey. Soon, using them will be really second nature for you! Yet, there are pitfalls, in particular when it comes to pronunciation.

I strongly, strongly advise you to study French with a structured method with audio and many examples. Grammar, verb conjugations… everything in French should be learned with an audio support because written and spoken French are like 2 different languages!

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