French pronouns are the subject of this article. It should give you a better feel for how they are individually used and the differences between them.
Some details have been left out to avoid complication, but the article explains the main uses of French pronouns. The aim is to give you a feeling for which type of French pronoun to use when.
In French there are several types of pronouns, which are as follows:
- Subject Pronouns (= Tells us who is doing the action)
- Reflexive Pronouns (= Used mainly for reflexive verbs)
- Prepositional Pronouns (= Used after prepositions and for emphasis)
- Direct Object Pronouns (= Used to replace a "direct object")
- Indirect Object Pronouns (= Used to show "To whom" something is done)
- Possessive Pronouns (= Used to demonstrate ownership)
We will deal with each type of pronoun separately individually then summarise the different types towards the end of the article.
French Subject Pronouns
Firstly, let´s first look at French subject pronouns. In French these are as follows:
Put simply, French subject pronouns tell us who is doing an action, for example:
- Je parle l´anglais = I speak English ("I" is the person doing the action of speaking)
- Nous parlons l´anglais = We speak English ("We" are the people doing the action of speaking)
- Il comprend = He understands ("He" is the person who is doing the action of understanding)
Subject pronouns should not be used in any other situation, such as an object in a sentence. One common mistake learners make is to use French subject pronouns when they should instead be using French direct object pronouns (discussed further below), for example:
- Je te vois = I see you = speaking to one friend*
- The reason you cannot use tu here is because it is a direct object - discussed below. Why? "Tu" is only used to show who is doing the action. Here "you" is the person being seen, not the person doing the seeing.
- This is why the phrase "Je t´aime" (I love you) used t´ (i.e. te before a vowel or a h) rather than tu.
In all likelihood if you put a subject pronoun anywhere in a sentence other than at the very start it is most likely to be wrong. Instead you should consider the alternative pronoun types below.
On a side note, you will see that some of the French subject pronouns are the same as when used as other types of pronoun, but this is coincidental. The different types of pronoun have different purposes, so should be thought of as separate from one another.
French Reflexive Pronouns
Now let´s look at reflexive pronouns. In French they are:
As you can see, reflexive pronouns have the meaning in English of the word ending in “-self” or “-selves”.
They are not however used for emphasising actions (e.g. I painted this picture myself).
Reflexive verbs are only (usually) used with verbs that have the format “se….” or “s´…” in the infinitive form (i.e. the version you will find in the dictionary), for example:
- Se laver (to wash oneself i.e. to have a wash)
- S´appeler (to call oneself i.e. to be named)
- Se lever (to get oneself up = literally “To lift oneself” i.e. what you do after waking up).
They should be normally inserted in front of the first verb for statements with one verb (i.e. one action word):
- Je me lave = I wash myself
- Tu t´appelles Pierre = You call yourself Pierre (i.e. Your name is Pierre) = speaking to one friend
In questions the reflexive part also goes in front of the first verb in one verb sentences:
- Comment t´appelles-tu? = Literally: How yourself call you? (i.e. What is your name?) = speaking to one person like a friend
- Quand vous levez-vous? = Literally: When yourself/yourselves rise you? (i.e. When do you get up?) = speaking formally and/or to more than one person
The reflexive pronoun however normally goes immediately before an infinitive where it is a verb plus infinitive structure, for example:
- Je veux me laver = I want to wash myself (i.e. I want to have a wash)*
- Il veut se laver = He wants to wash himself (i.e. He wants to have a wash)*
* Here "laver" is the infinitive form of the verb.
One important thing to note is reflexive verbs must always agree with the subject of the sentence (i.e. the person who is doing the action).
You cannot therefore use reflexive pronouns to say things like “He saw her”, etc. because the people vary.
You should also try to remember to drop the reflexive part (in most situations) where an object is named, for example:
- Je lave la voiture = I wash the car
- NOT Je me lave la voiture = I wash myself the car = Wrong
One exemption is when talking about washing body parts. For details see on this and more and more details on reflexive verbs more generally see "What exactly are Reflexive verbs?" page.
French Prepositional Pronouns
French prepositional pronouns are as follows:
They are mainly used after prepositions e.g. pour (for), avec (with), sans (without), à (to/at), chez (at the place of), etc.
See the following examples:
- Le cadeau est pour elle = The gift is for her
- Here "pour" is a preposition, so the pronoun following it has to be a prepositional pronoun.
- Nous habitons chez lui = We live at his house
- Here "chez" is a preposition, so again the pronoun must be a prepositional one.
- Elle est à Paris avec nous = She is in Paris with us
- Here "avec" is a preposition, so it is followed by a prepositional pronoun.
Prepositional pronouns are also used to emphasis the person who does the action, for example:
- Il aime Paris, lui = He likes Paris (= emphasis on him)
- The sentence is perfectly adequate without the lui word, but it emphasises that he is the one who likes Paris.
In English when asking who did something we say “Me” rather than “I” in some circumstances. French does the same thing (using prepositional pronouns), for example:
- Qui habite ici? = Who lives here?
- Moi = Me*
*This is essentially replacing a subject pronoun (i.e. that would tell us who is doing the action).
In modern English when comparing two people it is normal to say “Me” rather than “I”, “Him” instead of “He”, etc. French does the same thing, for example:
- Il est plus petit que moi/lui = He is shorter than me/him.
Prepositional pronouns are also used when saying things like:
- Où habites-tu? = Where do you live? (= asking one friend)
- J´habite à Paris et toi? = I live in Paris and you? (= asking one friend)
French Possessive Pronouns
In French the possessive pronouns are as follows:
French possessive pronouns have to agree with the object(s) owned, not the gender of the person owning. This means that your focus needs to be on:
- Whether the thing or things owned are masculine or feminine (if singular)
- OR whether the thing or things owned are plural
It is therefore irrelevant whether the owner is male or female, etc.
Take a look at the following examples:
- “Mon frère” is “My brother” regardless of whether a man or woman is talking, because “frère” (i.e. brother) is a masculine singular noun
- “Mes frères” is “My brothers” regardless of whether a man or woman is talking, because “frères” (i.e. brothers) is a plural noun (i.e. more than one)
- "Son frère" is "His brother", "Her brother" or "Its brother", Remember the focus is on the gender of the thing(s) owned (i.e. here the "brother"), not the owner.
One important exception to remember is “ma”, “ta” and “sa” are never used immediately before a word starting with a vowel or the letter ‘h’. Instead used ‘mon’, ‘ton’ and ‘son’ in this situation, for example:
- Mon amie = My (female) friend
- Here "ma" would have been the appropriate French word for "my" were it not for "amie" beginning with a vowel. Instead "mon" must be used.
French Direct Object Pronouns
French direct objects are as follows:
French direct object pronouns are used to replace a “direct object” in a sentence.
See the following examples to help you to understand exactly what direct objects are:
- To eat (Manger): Direct object = the thing(s) being eaten
- To see (Voir): Direct object = the thing(s)/the person/the people being seen
- To read (Lire): Direct object = the thing(s) being read
- To look at/To watch (Regarder): Direct object = the thing(s)/the person/the people being watched
Let´s do some examples:
- Il mange le pain (He eats the bread)
- Here "le pain" (the bread) is the direct object, as it is the thing being eaten.
- We could therefore instead say "Il le mange" (He eats it)
- Nous voyons la femme (We see the woman)
- Here "la femme" (the woman) is the direct object, as she is the one being seen.
- The shorter version would be to say "Nous la voyons" (We see her).
- Elle lit le livre (She reads the book)
- "Le livre" (the book) is the direct object, as it is the thing being read.
- As an alternative it is possible to say "Elle le lit" (She reads it)
- Ils regardent les hommes (They watch the men)
- "Les hommes" (the men) are the direct object, as they are the ones being watched.
- You could say instead "Ils les regarde" (He watches them)
If your verb requires a preposition, such as à, avec, de, etc. before your noun, your sentence does not have a direct object, for example:
- Il arrive à Paris = He arrives (or is arriving) in Paris
- Elle vient de France = She comes from France
In fact many French verbs do not have a direct object, for example:
- To arriver (Arriver): No direct object (“the thing(s) being arrived” does not make sense, therefore there can be no direct object with this verb)
- To go (Aller): No direct object (“the thing(s) being gone” does not make sense, therefore there can be no direct object with this verb)
One important point is unfortunately, there are sometimes differences between English and French. Some verbs in English can take a direct object, whereas the French equivalent cannot (and vice versa). One way to find out for sure whether your verb can take a direct object is to check in your dictionary. Essentially:
- If it says your verb is transitive the verb can take a direct object. (Dictionaries often say "VT" i.e. Verb Transitive)
- If it is intransitive the verb cannot. (Dictionaries often say "VI" i.e. Verb Intransitive)
Examples of transitive verbs in French are:
- Manger (To eat)
- Boire (To drink)
- Voir (To see)
- Regarder (To look at/To watch)
Examples of intransitive verbs in English are:
- Aller (To go)
- Arriver (To arrive)
- Venir (To come), etc.
Indirect Object Pronouns
French indirect object pronouns are as follows:
In contrast to French direct object pronouns, French indirect object pronouns normally imply the word “to” (or possibly “for”) in English.
Most verbs in French do not have an indirect object. Having said that, arguably the two most important verbs used with indirect objects are the French verbs:
- Dire (To say/To tell)
- Donner (To give)
In French you:
- Say something to someone
- Give something to someone
• With Dire (To say/To tell):
- The things being said are the direct object
- The person/people to whom something is said are the indirect object
• With Donner (To give):
- The things being given are the direct object
- The people to whom something are given are the indirect object
- The recipient of the information/item(s) is the indirect object (= Normally "To whom?")
- The information being said/item(s) being given are the direct objects
See the following examples:
- Nous donnons le livre à la femme (We give the book to the woman)
- This could instead be "Nous lui donnons le livre" (We to her give the book) - Here "Lui" is an indirect object
- Note: When used as an indirect object "lui" could mean "to him" or "to her".
Although this article focuses on using indirect objects pronouns with just donner and dire, of course many more verbs also use them. If your verb requires an indirect object, your dictionary will present your verb in the format of:
- téléphoner à quelqu´un (to telephone someone = literally: To telephone to someone)
- The à quelqu´un part translates essentially as "to someone". What this means is in French you telephone to somebody.
- Consequently if you want to say "I telephone Elizabeth", in French, you have to say "I telephone to Elizabeth" (i.e. Je téléphone à Elizabeth) = Literally: I telephone to Elizabeth.
- If you wanted to do a shorter version of the sentence you could say "Je lui téléphone" (= literally: I to him/to her telephone)
- Here you use "lui" as "to her", because in French you telephone to someone.
Using direct and indirect objects together
The most common situation where you use direct and indirect objects together is with the verbs dire (to say/to tell) and donner (to give).
Sometimes you might want to say that you want to say that you said something to someone or gave something to someone.
As regards word order, you put the direct object pronoun before the indirect object pronoun, for example:
- Je donne les livres aux hommes (I give the books to the men) could be shortened to:
- Je les leur donne (I give them to them) i.e. literally: I them to them give
Summary of Pronouns
See below for a brief summary of the French pronouns:
- Subject Pronouns: Indicates who does the action (Je/J’/Tu/Il/Elle/Nous/Vous/Ils/Elles)
- Reflexive Pronouns: Usually used with reflexive verbs (me/m'/te/t'/se/s'/nous/vous/se/s')
- Prepositional Pronouns: Used after a preposition (with/for/to, etc.) and for emphasising, etc. (moi/toi/lui/elle/nous/vous/eux/elles)
- Direct Object Pronouns: Replace the direct object of a sentence i.e. thing/person being seen/read, etc. (me/m'/te/t'/le/l'/la/l'/nous/vous/les)
- Indirect Object Pronouns: The recipient of an action/To whom an action is done (me/m'/te/t'/lui/nous/vous/leur)
- Possessive Pronouns: Used to show ownership (mon/ma/mes/ton/ta/tes/son/sa/ses/notre/nos/votre/vos/leur/leurs)
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This article has hopefully helped you to understand some key differences between different French pronouns.