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French Grammar

Understanding French Pronouns

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis on September 29, 2010

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.

What is A Pronoun ?

A pronoun is a small word which replaces a noun.

For example, if I am talking about my friend Tina, I can say: “Tina picks flowers. Tina likes flowers. Tina is happy”.

Or, I could replace “Tina” and use a pronoun, in this case “she”.

Why “she” and not “her”? or “hers”? Because in this sentence, “Tina” is the grammatical subject. So I need to pick a subject pronoun.

1 – How to Pick the Right French Pronoun

A- Understanding the value of the word the pronoun will replace

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

  • Tina donne des fleurs.
    Qui donne ? Tina donne.

Qui + verb is the grammatical question you ask to figure out the subject.
Since “Tina” answers “qui + verb”, Tina is the subject.

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” to replace “Tina”. (If you don’t understand “feminine & singular”, read my article about French number and gender before you continue reading this article)

  • Elle donne des fleurs.

There is no “it” in French. There are emerging French “neutral” pronouns for human beings being used mostly within the LGBTQ+ community, such as “iel”, but it’s not common practice yet.

B – The key to understanding French pronouns

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.

In English, there are not so many pronouns. The choice between “she” or “her” or “hers” comes naturally to your ear.

It takes about 10 years for a French kid to master all the different French pronouns: they mostly learn by repetition, although they do also spend years learning 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 you, 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.

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

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.

This lesson will give you essential pointers, and offer simplified explanations: I cannot explain all the subtleties of French pronouns in one article when entire books are written on this subject! I will however focus on what usually confuses English speakers.

2- French Stress Pronouns

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Stress pronouns (also called “disjunctive” and “emphatic” pronouns) are used:

  1. after “c’est”,
  2. alone (as in pointing to someone to say “him”, or raising your hand to get picked),
  3. and before and after prepositions/conjunctions.
  • c’est moi.
  • Moi, moi !! (shouting it out to get picked).
  • Avec toi… Lui et moi.

The list of French stress pronouns is moi, toi, LUI, ELLE, soi, nous, vous, EUX, ELLES.

Note that in stress pronouns, LUI is used only for MASCULINE singular, and also carefully learn the plural masculine EUX – pronounced like the “e” in “je”.

The stress pronoun for “on” is “soi” but it’s not very used in French.

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

A – The key to figuring out French direct and indirect object pronouns

As I explained in the first paragraph, the key to figuring out what pronoun you should use to replace a French word is understanding the grammatical value of that word.

In order to do that, you will ask a very specific grammatical question.

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 direct and indirect objects is that English may take a COI where French takes a COD… So if you ask your grammatical question in English, you may get the wrong answer: for example ‘to call someone’ takes a direct object in English. “Téléphoner à quelqu’un” takes an indirect object in French.

Your grammar questions are:

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

Now let’s take an example, it will make much more sense this way.

  • Tina donne les fleurs à Paul

Start by finding out the direct object by asking your direct object question in French.
Subject + verb + qui/quoi ?
Tina donne quoi ?
Answer: Tina donne les fleurs
Les fleurs = COD

Now let’s look for the indirect object.
Subject + verb + à qui ?
Tina donne à qui ?
Answer: à Paul
À Paul = COI

If you understand this process, then you understand direct and indirect objects in French.

Once you’ve found the word you want to replace, you choose the right pronoun in the list of pronouns.

B – French direct object pronouns

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

So for my example, “les fleurs” is replaced by “les”
= Tina les donne à Paul.

C – French indirect object pronouns

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 my example, “à Paul” is replaced by “lui”
= Tina lui donne les fleurs.

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.

Object 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).

D – Using several object pronouns in the same sentence

You can use several object pronouns in the same sentence.

  • Tina donne les fleurs à Paul = Tina les lui donne.

Except for the imperative mood, the order will be the following :

+ (ne)
+ me / te / se / nous / vous
+ le / la / l’ / les
+ lui / leur
+ verb
+ (pas).

Obviously, this is just a shortcut: you cannot learn your pronoun order with a list like that. You need to practice a lot so this order becomes second nature to you. Glidings are super strong over these pronouns, in particular the ones ending in “e”, so stay focused on the context since lots of time, one pronoun will disappear in spoken French when people don’t enunciate…

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”.

5 – French Verbs + Direct or Indirect Object

To understand the difference between direct and indirect object, it’s interesting to take a closer look at your French verb.

A LOT OF FRENCH VERBS take direct object pronouns.

ONLY A FEW FRENCH 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.

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

So the best thing to do is to drill with these French verbs and “lui & leur”… je lui téléphone, nous leur vendons….

6 – Subtilities of French Object Pronouns

As I said earlier, I cannot cover all the subtilities of French pronouns in one article… It would take entire books. But here are some remarks I hope will help you understand the French pronouns better.

A – Animate versus Inanimate

Note that the COD may be a thing or a person, an animal… So animate or inanimate.

  1. Je regarde la télé. Je regarde quoi ? La télé. Je la regarde.
  2. Je regarde ma fille. Je regarde qui ? Ma fille. Je la regarde.

The COI is most of the time an animate being (a person or an animal).
It can be an inanimate thing like a company (inanimate… but still made of people), but it’s very unlikely that it would be a chair for example… Of course one can always imagine crazy scenarios like in the movie Cast-Away when Tom Hanks talks to his volleyball…

  • Je parle à mon ami. Je parle à qui ? à mon ami. Je lui parle.

B – French pronouns – taking things further

I don’t know whether what I am going to say next is going to help you or confuse you. However, give it a try, and if it doesn’t help, then immediately forget about it.

Of course, these are shortcuts, I’m sure you’ll find examples where this doesn’t’ work.

Direct, indirect, object, and stress pronouns have kind of the same value. They have to do with “who” the subject does an action to.

And in French, the preposition is the key.

Subject + verb + someone/something = direct object
Je regarde Pierre = je le regarde

Subject + verb + à someone = most of the time indirect object (some exceptions when some verbs with an “à” construction require a stress pronouns)
Je donne (la fleur) à Pierre = Je lui donne (la fleur).

Subject + verb + à something = Y
Elle pense à son école = elle y pense

Subject + verb + chez, pour, avec, de . . . someone = stress pronoun
Je vais chez mes parents = Je vais chez eux.

Subject + verb + de something = en
Il parle de son école = il en parle

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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.

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