Understanding French Pronouns

Today, I am going to talk about a vast and difficult subject: French pronouns. I can’t cover it all in a blog post, but I will point out some difficulties that often confuse the students of French and I hope this will clarify things a bit.

First, let’s see how to pick the right French pronoun.

1 – How to Pick the Right French Pronoun?

First, you have to figure out the grammatical value of the word you want to replace.

  • For example ; Tina regarde la télévision.
    Qui regarde ? Tina regarde. Tina est le sujet.

Therefore, I will choose a subject pronoun to replace Tina.

The list of French subject pronoun is:

  • Je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, elles (s is silent).

Tina is feminine, singular, a third person (she), so I’ll pick “elle”.

This is often the biggest problem English speakers face when dealing with pronouns. They don’t know how to figure out the grammatical value of the noun they want to replace.

To solve this problem, I strongly suggest you get my downloadable French audiobook À Moi Paris Level 1 and 3, which will clearly explain French pronouns to you, with many examples. The pronouns are then featured within the context of a low intermediate story.

It takes about 10 years for a French kid to master the different kinds of French pronouns: they mostly learn by repetition, although they also learn the theory in French class. Ideally, kids learn pronouns by repetition and correction: their parents and teachers keep correcting their mistakes, and then the kid develops an understanding of what pronoun s/he should use in different sentence structures.

So, you may be able to learn the French pronouns by mimicking French sentences featuring pronouns (with audio of course), like French kids do. But unless you have someone constantly correcting your French, this way not be the best nor the fastest way.

Actually understanding the logic behind why we use this or that pronoun will be a tremendous help to understanding French pronouns. This “logic” is called grammar.

Now, in French, you have many kinds of pronouns.

Today, let’s look at French stress pronouns and French object pronouns, which are the ones that confuse learners of French the most.

2- French Stress Pronouns

Stress pronouns are used after “c’est”, alone (as in pointing to someone to say “him”, or raising your hand to get picked), and before and after prepositions/conjunctions.

  • c’est moi.
  • Avec toi… Lui et moi.
  • Moi, moi !! (shouting it out to get picked).

The list is moi, toi, LUI, ELLE, nous, vous EUX ELLES

Note that in stress pronouns, LUI is used only for MASCULINE singular, and also learn the plural masculine EUX – pronounced like jE

Subject and Stress pronouns are thoroughly explained in chapters 1, 2 and 9 of my downloadable French audiobook À Moi Paris Level 1. I use many examples and then feature the pronouns in a beginner level bilingual story.

3 – Direct and Indirect French Object Pronouns

To find out the COD (complement d’objet direct) and the COI (complement d’objet indirect) it is essential that you ask your grammatical questions IN FRENCH.

The problem with these is that English may take a COI where French takes a COD…

Your grammar questions are:

  1. subject + verb + qui/quoi ? = COD
  2. subject + verb + à qui = COI

The COI is always an animate being (person or animal)
The COD may be a thing or a person

  1. Tina donne les fleurs à Paul
  2. Tina donne quoi ? Les fleurs = COD
  3. Tina donne à qui ? à Paul = COI

The list of French COD pronouns is:

  • Me, te, le/la, nous, vous, les – note me, te, le/la become m’, t’, l’ + vowel or h

The list of French COI pronouns is:

  • Me, te, LUI, nous, vous, LEUR – note me and te become m’ or t’ + vowel or h

So, for a COI, lui means him AND her (unlike stress pronouns where lui means him, elle means her).

Note that for both object groups, me, te, nous, vous are the same. So the pronoun only change between le, la, l’, les, lui, leur.

Pronouns usually go right before the CONJUGATED verb (after the”ne” in the negative), and there are lots of glidings in spoken French (use my French audiobooks to get accustomed to understanding spoken French).

  1. je la regarde
  2. je l’ai regardée
  3. je ne la regarde pas

A LOT OF VERBS take direct object pronouns.

ONLY A FEW VERBS  take indirect object pronouns: acheter à, emprunter à, prêter à, offrir à, rendre à,  donner à,  vendre à, parler à, demander à, dire à, téléphoner à,  écrire à, sourire à, répondre à, souhaiter à, envoyer à, laisser à, présenter à, servir à, raconter à…the list goes on but these are the most common ones.

So the best thing to do is to drill with this verbs and lui and leur… je lui téléphone, nous leur vendons….

  • Je connais Martine = je connais qui ? Martine
    COD feminine singular
    Je la connais
    For feminine singular, your “choice” of object pronoun is between “la, l'”  or “lui ” but it is never “elle”, so it will NEVER be “je elle connais, or je connais elle”.
    Same goes for masculine : you choice is “le, l’ or lui”, NEVER il.

You may find this list of French verbs followed by the preposition à  useful.

You also need to be careful about your liaisons with nous, vous, les.

  • ma mère arrose les fleurs le soir
    ma mère arrose quoi ? ma mère arrose les fleurs – feminine, plural. COD
    ma mère les Zarrose le soir (of course tthereis no written Z there – I’m only showing you the liaison…)

Direct and Indirect object pronouns are thoroughly explained + exercises + featured in an intermediate level story in my French audiobook À Moi Paris Level 3.

4 – What is really Confusing About French Pronouns

Now, you see that pronouns are confusing, because the same words have different values:

  1. NOUS and VOUS are the form for almost all pronouns: subject, stress, object, reflexive, etc…
  2. LUI can mean “for/with/by… – HIM – masculine singular ONLY when it is a stress pronoun, AND “him or her” when it is an indirect object pronoun.
  3. LEUR means them, but it’s also the form of the possessive adjective “their”; voici leur maison.
  4. LE, LA, L’, LES, are direct object pronouns AND definite articles meaning “the”.

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If you enjoyed this article, you will also enjoy the audio article I recorded about the modern glidings of the French object pronouns.