A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun in a clause or sentence, like "he", "she", "it" or "someone" in English. The particular pronoun that is used depends on both the characteristics of the noun and the role it is playing in the sentence. In English pronouns may represent one person or many and be the cause or recipient of the action: e.g. You see me or I see you. In this example, the pronoun representing the speaker has two forms ("I" or "me") but the pronoun for the listener only has the form "you".
French has six different types of pronouns: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person plural.
|3rd person||singular||il, elle, on||he, she, one|
|plural||ils, elles||they (masculine)
When referring to more than one person in the 2nd person, “vous” must be used. When referring to a single person, “vous” or “tu” may be used depending on the situation; see notes in lesson 1.
In addition to the nuances between vous and tu, as discussed in lesson 1, French pronouns carry meanings that do not exist in English pronouns. The French third person "on" has several meanings, but most closely matches the now archaic English "one". While in English, "One must be very careful in French grammar" sounds old-fashioned, the French equivalent "On doit faire très attention à la grammaire française" is quite acceptable. Also, while the third person plural "they" has no gender in English, the French equivalents "ils" and "elles" do. However, when pronounced, they normally sound the same as "il" and "elle", so distinguishing the difference requires understanding of the various conjugations of the verbs following the pronoun. Also, if a group of people consists of both males and females, the male form is used, even if there is only one male in a group of thousands of females.
In everyday language, “on” is used, instead of “nous”, to express “we”; the verb is always used in the 3rd person singular. For example, to say "We (are) meeting at 7 o'clock", you could say either “On se rencontre au cinéma à sept heures.” (colloquial) or “Nous nous rencontrons au cinéma à sept heures.” (formal). For more, see the Wikipedia entry.
French has six different types of subject pronouns: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person plural. These represent the noun that causes the action of the verb in a clause or sentence.
|3rd person||il, elle, on||he, she, one|
The pronoun it does not exist in French. All masculine nouns (even those that are not human) are replaced by il. The same is true with feminine nouns and elle.
While the third person plural "they" has no gender in English, the French equivalents "ils" and "elles" do. However, when pronounced, they normally sound the same as "il" and "elle", so distinguishing the difference requires understanding of the various conjugations of the verbs following the pronoun. Also, if a group of people consists of both males and females, the male form is used, even with a majority of females — however, this sensibly yields to overwhelming majority: given a group of only one male to thousands of females, the female form would be used.
- Jack et Philipp jouent - Jack and Philipp play
Ils jouent - They play (all-male group)
- Jack et Lucy jouent - Jack and Lucy play
Ils jouent - They play (mixed group)
- Lucy et Dina jouent - Lucy and Dina play
Elles jouent - They play (all female group)
Vous vs. tuEdit
This is an important difference between French and English. English no longer distinguishes between the singular and the plural, formal version of "you", although "thou" used to be the informal singular version in the days of Shakespeare.
"Vous" is the plural form of "you". This is somewhat equivalent to "you all", "you guys", "all of you", except that it does not carry any familiarity when used with the plural. You'd use it to address your friends as well as when talking to the whole government at a press conference.
"Vous" is also used to refer to single individuals to show respect, to be polite or to be neutral. It is used when talking to someone who is important, someone who is older than you are, or someone with whom you are unfamiliar. This is known as Vouvoiement.
Conversely, "tu" is the singular and informal form of "vous" (you) in French. It is commonly used when referring to a friend or a family member, and is also used between children or when addressing a child. If it is used when speaking to a stranger, it signals disrespect. This is known as Tutoiement. If uncertain, it is best to begin by using "vous" and wait for the other person to suggest the use of "tu". The use of "vous" is less common in Quebequois than in French from France.
Grammatically, even the singular form of "vous" behaves as though it were a plural, so even if you are addressing only one person, you would still use verbal grammar consistent with addressing multiple people, similar to English (as in "you are", "you [all] are", "they are.") Nevertheless, related adjectives or past participles need to use singular or plural endings according to the actual number of people present.
Examples, addressing one person:
- Tu gagnes - you win (informal)
- Vous gagnez - you win (polite) - (also, to address many persons)
- Tu es costaud - You are tough (informal)
- Vous êtes accrocheur - You are determined (polite, male)
- Vous êtes accrocheuse - You are determined (polite, female)
Examples, addressing many people:
- Vous êtes forts - You are strong (informal or polite, male, many persons)
- Vous êtes fortes - You are strong (informal or polite, female, many persons)
The pronoun onEdit
The French third person "on" has several meanings, but most closely matches the English "one". While in English, "One must convert one's chances" sounds old-fashioned, the French equivalent "On doit concrétiser nos occasions" is quite acceptable.
The subject pronoun on is similar to the English personal pronoun one, except that it is not so formal, and is more common. It has a number of uses:
- It is used in the same ways as the English personal pronoun one: e.g.
- It is used in expressing generalities: « C'est en jouant qu'on devient joueur. » ("It is by playing that one becomes a player.")
- It is the implicit subject for an infinitive that has no other implicit subject: « penser qu'on a raison » ("to think that one is right," i.e. "to think oneself right").
- Because of French's limited passive voice, it is often used as an empty subject when the agent is unknown or unimportant: « On nous l'a prété. » ("[On] loaned him to us" or "They loaned him to us" or "He was loaned to us.")
- It is used as a less formal substitute for the subject pronoun nous (we). In this case, note that even though on always takes a third-person singular verb, it takes plural adjectives (« On est britanniques », "We're British"). Also, note that the other forms of nous (direct object, indirect object, and disjunctive) are not replaced by forms of on unless on is the subject as well. (Hence, « Ils nous l'ont donné », "They gave it to us," but « On se l'est donné », "We gave it to ourselves.")
- It is not the number 1, and therefore is not used to mean "one of them." In French as in English, numbers can be used as pronouns — « Deux sont entrés et un est ressorti », "Two went in and one came back out" — but the number 1 is un(e), not on.
On does not have ordinary direct- and indirect-object pronouns, only the reflexive pronoun se. Similarly, its stressed pronoun form, soi, is only used when on is the subject and soi refers to the same entity. The indefinite pronoun quelqu'un ("someone") can fill some of the roles of on, in the same way that one and someone are sometimes interchangeable in English.
In everyday language, “on” is used, instead of “nous”, to express “we”; the verb is always used in the 3rd person singular. For example, to say "We (are) meeting at 7 o'clock", you could say either “On se rencontre à sept heures.” (colloquial) or “Nous nous rencontrons à sept heures.” (formal) (there are two words "nous", meaning "we" and "ourselves"). For more, see the Wikipedia entry.
Use of titles instead of pronounsEdit
Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle are the French equivalents of Mr, Mrs and Miss, but they are used more frequently in formal conversation and where in English we might use a personal pronoun. (see French For Football/Grammar/Sentences for examples)
Direct Object PronounsEdit
While the subject of a sentence initiates an action (the verb), the direct object is the one that is affected by the action. A direct object pronoun can be used to refer to the direct object of a previous sentence:
|Pierre bloque le tir.||Pierre blocks the shot.|
|Pierre le bloque.||Pierre blocks it.|
The following table shows the various types of direct object pronouns:
|singular||1st person||me, m'||me1|
|2nd person||te, t'||you1|
|3rd person||le, l'||him, it|
|la, l'||her, it|
- 1 me, te, nous, and vous are also used as indirect objects to mean to me, to you, to us, and to you respectively.
- The pronoun form with an apostrophe is used before a vowel.
- The direct object pronoun for nous and vous is the same as the subject.
l', le, la, and lesEdit
The words l', le, la, and les which are used to mean "the" are also used as direct object pronouns meaning "him", "her", "it" or "them".
- Il jette le ballon. - He throws the ball.
In the above sentence le ballon is the direct object.
You have learned earlier that names and regular nouns can be replaced by the subject pronouns (je, tu...). Similarly, direct objects, such as "le ballon", can be replaced by pronouns. These are a different set of pronouns (accusative). As in English, you would say "She gave him," and not "Her gave he." He/she are subjects used in the nominative case, while him/her are direct objects used in the accusative case.
- le - replaces a masculine singular direct object ("him" or "it")
- la - replaces a feminine singular direct object ("her" or "it")
- l' - replaces le and la if they come before a vowel
- les - replaces plural direct objects, both masculine and feminine
The direct object pronouns come before the verb they are linked to.
- Il le jette. - He throws it.
- Il les jette. - He throws them.
Le, la, and les can replace either people or inanimate objects.
Direct object replacementEdit
- Il me supporte. - He supports me.
- Il te supporte. - He supports you.
- Il nous supporte. - He supports us.
- Il vous supporte. - He supports you.
Place in sentencesEdit
- These pronouns are placed before the verb that they modify
- Je te bat. - I am beating you.
- Je veux te battre. - I want to beat you.
- If a perfect tense is used, these pronouns go before the auxiliary verb.
- Je t'ai battu. - I have beaten you.
An indirect object is an object that would be asked for with To whom...? or From whom...?. It is called indirect because it occurs usually together with a direct object which is affected directly by the action:
|Il passe le ballon au gardien.||He passes the ball to the keeper.|
|Il lui passe le ballon.||He passes the ball to him.|
The following table shows the various types of indirect object pronouns:
|singular||1st person||me, m'||to me1|
|2nd person||te, t'||to you1|
|3rd person||lui'||to him, to her|
|plural||1st person||nous||to us1|
|2nd person||vous||to you1|
|3rd person||leur||to them|
- 1 me, te, nous, and vous are also used as direct objects to mean me, you, us, and you respectively.
- The pronoun form with an apostrophe is used before a vowel.
- The indirect object pronoun for nous and vous is the same as the subject.
lui and leurEdit
An indirect object is a noun that receives the object or is indirectly affected by the action of a clause or sentence. Indirect objects identify "to whom" or "for whom" the action occurs, and are usually preceded by a preposition like "to" or "for", or "à" in French.
- Il montre le carton jaune à Jacques. - He shows the yellow card to Jack.
- Il montre le carton jaune à Marie. - He shows the yellow card to Mary.
- Il montre le carton jaune à Jacques et Marie. - He shows the yellow card to Jack and Mary.
Lui and leur are indirect object pronouns. They replace nouns referring to people and mean to him/her and to them respectively.
- lui - replaces a singular masculine or feminine indirect object referring to a person
- leur - replaces a plural masculine or feminine indirect object referring to a person
An example follows:
- Il lui montre le carton rouge. - He shows the red card to him.
- Il lui montre le carton rouge. - He shows the red card to her.
- Il leur montre le carton rouge. - He shows the red card to them.
Whether lui means to him or to her is given by context.
When used with the direct object pronouns le, la, and les, the indirect object pronouns lui and leur come after the direct object pronouns. (This is different from the normal word order, as explained below.)
- Il le lui passe. - He passes it to him.
Note that lui and leur are only used for people and not for inanimate objects and things, for which other pronouns such as "y" or "en" are used instead.
Also note that unlike le and la, which are shortened to l' when followed by a vowel, lui is never shortened.
Indirect Object ReplacementEdit
- Il m'appelle. - He calls to me.
- Il te le donne. - He gives it to you.
- Il nous le donne. - He gives it to us.
- Il vous le donne. - He gives it to you.
The pronoun yEdit
Indirect object pronoun - to it, to themEdit
The French pronoun y is used to replace an object of a phrase introduced by a preposition.
- Je crois en la montée. - J'y crois.
- I believe in promotion. - I believe in it.
Note that lui and leur, and not y, are used when the object refers to a person or persons.
Replacement of places - thereEdit
The French pronoun y replaces a prepositional phrase referring to a place that begins with any preposition except de (for which en is used).
- Les clubs promus vont en Ligue 1. - Les clubs promus y vont.
- The promoted clubs go to Ligue 1. - The promoted clubs go there.
Note that en, and not y is used when the object is of the preposition de.
- Ça y est! - It's done!
- J'y suis! - I get it!
- Vous y êtes? - Are you ready?
The pronoun enEdit
To say 'some of it' without specifying the exact object, the pronoun 'en' can be used. Additionally, 'en' can mean 'of it' when 'it' is not specified. For instance, instead of saying J'ai besoin d'argent, if the idea of money has already been raised, it can be stated as 'J'en ai besoin'. This is because en replaces du, de la or des when there the noun is not specifically mentioned in that sentence.
Like with 'me', 'te' and other pronouns, en (meaning 'some') comes before the verb.
|Tu joues du piano? Non, je n'en joue pas||Do you play piano? No, I don't play it.|
|Vous prenez du poisson? Oui, j'en prends.||Are you having fish? Yes, I'm having some.|
|Vous avez commandé de l'eau? Oui, nous en avons commandé.||Did you order some water? Yes, we ordered some.|
|Que pensez-vous de la corruption dans le football ? Je n’en sais rien.||What do you think of the corruption in football? I don't know anything about it.|
|J'en ai fait beaucoup.||I've done a lot (of them).|
Replacement of a partitive constructionEdit
- The pronoun en replaces a noun with a partitive article (du, de la, de, des) at the front. In this case En goes always with the singular, even if there are many items addressed.
- Je veux du temps de jeu. → J'en veux. - I want some playing time. → I want some.
Replacement of quantified nounsEdit
If the quantity of the object is specified, "en" is used for the replacement of the noun.
Example: Il a acheté deux billets. → Il en a acheté deux. - He bought two tickets → He bought two (of them).
Note that no agreement is needed between the past participle (le participe passé) and the object (complément d'objet direct).
Replacement of phrases with deEdit
- The pronoun en replaces prepositional phrases beginning with de if the object of the preposition is referring to a thing or place.
- Je viens de Paris. - I come from Paris.
- J'en viens. - I come from it.
- Note that stress pronouns, and not en are used if the object refers to people.
If a sentence uses no infinitive, the pronouns are embedded as follows:
If a sentence uses an infinitive, the pronouns are embedded as follows:
- When a sentence uses the indirect object pronouns me, te, nous, and vous with the direct object pronouns le, la, and les, me, te, nous, and vous go first.
- Il me le donne. - He gives it to me.
- When a sentence uses the indirect object pronouns lui and leur with the direct object pronouns le, la, and l', le, la, and les go first.
- Il le lui donne. - He gives it to him/her.
- When y is used in the same sentence as other pronouns, y goes after all of them with the exception of en.
- Il m'emmène à l'entraînement. - He takes me to training.
- Il m'y emmène. - He takes me there.
- Y in conjunction with en is only used in a few cases.
- Il y en a. - There exist several (of them).
- Est-ce qu'il y a des billets? (Oui,) il y en a. (Non,) il n'y en a (pas/plus). - Are there any tickets (left)? Yes, there are. No, there aren't.
- When there are two pronouns in a sentence, en always go last.
When expressing positive commands, there are several rules one must remember when using object pronouns. Theses are:
- The pronouns are attached to the verb with a hyphen.
- Retrouve-la. - Find it.
- Me and Te become moi and toi.
- Donnez-moi les résultats. - Give me the results.
- Le, la, and les precede all other object pronouns.
- Donnez-le-moi. - Give it to me.
- For the second person singular form, an "s" is added if the object (in the pronoun form) begins with a vowel or "y".
- Va aux vestiaires. - Go to the changing rooms. BUT Vas-y. - Go (there).
- Vas-y. - Come on.
Possessive pronouns are equivalent to "mine", "yours" etc. and replace possessive adjective + noun sets. e.g.
- Vous avez vos billets? - You have your tickets?
- Oui, nous avons les nôtres. - Yes, we have ours.
Like the possessive adjectives "mon", "ma", "mes" etc. the possessive pronouns agree in gender with the noun that is being replaced, as shown in this table. (Note that "le", "la" and "les" are essential parts of the possessive pronouns.)
|masculine singular||masculine plural||feminine singular||feminine plural|
|singular||1st person||me, m'||myself|
|2nd person||te, t'||yourself|
|3rd person||se, s'||himself, herself, oneself|
|3rd person||se, s'||themselves|
À + a stressed pronoun is used when the noun replaced is also the subject of the sentence. This usually occurs in sentences with être.
- Elle est ta voiture? - Is that your car?
- Oui, elle est à moi. - Yes, it is mine.
|3rd person||lui, elle, soi||him, her, one|
Relative Pronouns Qui and QueEdit
- relative pronouns begin adjective clauses
- the man that was here
- the man that I saw
- qui is the subject of the clause it introduces
- Je vois l'homme qui l'a fait. - I see the man that did it.
- L'homme qui l'a fait est ici. - The man that did it is here.
- que is the direct object of the clause it introduces
- Il est l'homme que j'ai vu. - He is the man that I have seen.
- remember that in perfect tenses, the past participle agrees with the direct object in gender and plurality if the direct object comes before the verb
- Elles sont les femmes que j'ai vues. - They are the women that I have seen.
- If que is followed by a vowel, it is shortened to qu'.
- Il est l'homme qu'il a vu. - He is the man that he has seen.
- qui is never shortened, even when followed by a vowel
- qui and que can modify both people and things
- Je vois la voiture qui est cassé. - I see the car that is broken.
- qui and que can modify both masculine and feminine nouns
- qui and que can modify both singular and plural nouns
- in the phrases ce qui and ce que, which literally mean that which, but more naturally mean what, ce is the noun.
Like English, French has a number of different interrogative pronouns. They are organized here by the English pronoun to which they correspond:
- As the direct object of a verb, que (or qu' before a vowel or mute "h") is used in front of the verb: « Que faites-vous ? » ("What are you doing?")
- Also as the direct object of a verb, qu'est-ce que (or qu'est-ce qu' before a vowel or mute "h") is used, without subject-auxiliary inversion. This phrase is analysed as a single word  : « Qu'est-ce que vous faites ? » ("What is it that you are doing?")
- As the object of a preposition, or after the verb, quoi is used: « Après quoi aboie-t-il ? » ("At what is it barking?"), « Vous faites quoi ? » ("You are doing what?")
- There is no indirect-object form; rather, a full prepositional phrase (with quoi) is used: « À quoi pensez-vous ? » ("About what are you thinking?")
- As the subject form, qu'est-ce qui is used, without inversion: « Qu'est-ce qui vous dérange ? » ("What is it that bothers you?")
- Who, whom:
- As the subject or direct object of a verb, or as the object of a preposition, qui is used: « Qui vous dérange ? » ("Who bothers you?")
- There is no indirect-object form; rather, a full prepositional phrase (with qui) is used: « À qui avez-vous donné cela ? » ("To whom did you give that?")
- Which, which one(s):
- The basic form is lequel (le + quel; see French articles and determiners for information about each component).
- Both parts of lequel are inflected to agree with its referent in gender and number: hence, laquelle, lesquels, lesquelles.
- The prepositions à and de contract with le and les to form au, aux, du, and des, respectively; this is still the case here. Thus, for example, auxquelles means "at/to which ones" (feminine), and duquel means "of/from which one" (masculine).
For more information on the formation of questions, see Sentences.
French has a few different demonstrative pronouns. The pronouns ceci and cela/ça correspond roughly to English "this" and "that" when used as pronouns; the pronoun celui corresponds to English "this one," "that one," "the one."
However, in expressions like "this match" or "that player", "this" and "that" are being used as adjectives not pronouns, and the translation into French is different. (see Adjectives).
The pronouns ceci, cela, and çaEdit
Ceci and cela correspond roughly to English "this" and "that," respectively. Ça is an abbreviated form of cela, used in less formal contexts. Unlike English "this," ceci is quite rare; its most common use is in writing, to refer to something that is about to be mentioned: « Ceci est le problème : il boit trop. » ("This is the problem: he drinks too much.") Cela and ça are often used even when English would use "this."
These pronouns do not have a gender, and are not used to refer to people or nouns whose gender is known. If the gender is known then celui or celle or their plural forms would be used instead.
- Il frappe mais cela passe à côté - He strikes but it goes wide.
- Le tir est déviée en corner. Cela ne donne rien. - The shot is deflected for a corner. That comes to nothing.
- On sait que cela va être compliqué. - We know that it will be difficult.
The pronoun celuiEdit
Celui corresponds to English "the one," "this one," and "that one." Since its purpose is to identify ("demonstrate") its referent, it is always accompanied by additional identifying information.
Like other pronouns, celui is inflected to agree with its antecedent in gender and number. Its forms are as follows:
As mentioned above, the demonstrative pronoun is always accompanied by additional identifying information. This information can come in any of the following forms:
- the suffix -ci or -là, attached with a hyphen. These suffixes indicate proximity and distance, respectively; celui-ci means "this one (masculine)," for example, while celle-là means "that one (feminine)." In writing, celui-ci (or another of its forms) is often used to mean "the latter," while celui-là means "the former".
- a relative clause. This construction is more common than in English; for example, English's "the blue one" may be rendered in French as celui qui est bleu (lit. "the one that is blue") — except that celui and bleu would be celle and bleue if the referent were feminine, and est might be était or sera or serait. "The blue one" can also be rendered, especially in colloquial language, as le bleu (m.), la bleue (f.), which are closer to English, but, depending on context, the latter construction can, in the masculine, mean either "the blue one" or "blue" (the blue color).
- one of a few common expressions of location. For example, celui de gauche means "the one on the left (masculine)."
- de, followed by a possessor. For example, « Ceux de Marie sont cassés » ("Marie's (masculine) are broken").
- Zuckerman, Shalom; Hulk, Aafke (2001), "Acquiring optionality in French wh-questions: an experimental study", Revue québécoise de linguistique 30 (2), http://www.erudit.org/revue/rql/2001/v30/n2/000520ar.html
This page is based on original text from French/Grammar/Pronouns dated 23 October 2009.