A pronoun, by definition, is the replacement for a noun. The pronouns we are most familiar with are likely the subject pronouns. In English, these are I, you, he, she, it, we, one, they They are used in place of a full noun. Instead of saying, "Steve went to the store. Steve did Steve's homework. Steve went to Steve's bed.", we say things like "I went to the store. I did my homework. I went to my bed." Not only do the pronouns in this case make the sentences less cumbersome, they also clarify who is speaking and about whom. This leads us to the topic of the first, second and third person.

The Concept of 'Person'

To speak in the first person means to speak about oneself. The pronoun "I" or "we" is used. When I am recounting a story about myself alone, I'm speaking in the first-person singular. If I include someone other than myself, it is called the first-person plural The second person involves the pronoun "you." Whenever you refer directly to the person to whom you are speaking, you are using the second person. When talking directly to only one person, use the second-person singular. When talking directly to two or more people, you use the second-person plural. When discussing a person who is neither the speaker nor the person addressed, the third person is used. Pronouns such as "he, she, they, it" are examples of third-person pronouns. Whenever only one individual is the subject, use the third-person singular. When two or more, use the third-person plural.

If this concept seems as clear as mud now, just realize that, in English, I and we are the first-person subject pronouns, you is the second-person singular and plural subject pronoun and he, she, it, one, they are the third-person subject pronouns.

Here are some examples to help clarify:

This concept is important so that we can speak in more abstract terms about the pronouns in French. If you understand what is meant by the second-person plural, you will have an easier time understand some of the differences between the French pronouns and the English ones.

Types of pronouns

There are many types of pronouns. The most basic are the subject pronouns. But, the list includes object pronouns, disjunctive pronouns, possessive pronouns, reflexive pronouns and others. Eventually, this document will discuss the entire list, but let's start with the most basic.

The Subject Pronouns in French

Just as in English, the subject pronouns in French serve to replace a noun as the subject of a sentence or clause. Being the subject of the sentence or clause means that these pronouns are the doers. They perform whatever action or being the verb of the sentence indicates. The following table shows the subject pronouns and their corresponding English translation. Note that none of the subject pronouns are capitalized unless they are the first word in a sentence.

The Subject Pronouns in French

je = I (1st p. sing.) nous = we (1st p. plur.)
tu* = you (2nd. p. sing.) vous* = you (2nd. p. sing./plur.)
il/elle/on = he/she/one (3rd p. sing.) ils/elles** = they (3rd. p. plur.)

*Note that tu and vous both mean 'you'. Tu is used in referring to one person of equal age and status such as one teenager to another. Vous is used in all cases when you refers to more than one person and also in cases of children to adults or adults to each other when they don't know each other or have a formal relationship. When it doubt, use vous.

Here are some examples of the difference between tu and vous:

**Ils refers to a group of two or more males (or masculine nouns) or any mixed group in which at least one member is male (or a masculine noun). Elles refers to a group of two or more females (or feminine nouns) in which no males (or masculine nouns) are included. Here are some examples:

Here are some examples of the usage of the other subject pronouns:

The Object Pronouns in French

An object pronoun is one which indicates the receiver of an action. These are distinguished from the subject pronouns which indicate the doer. In turn, there are two kinds of object pronouns, the direct and indirect object pronouns. In French, it will be important to know which verbs take a direct object pronoun and which take indirect ones. Often, French and English differ in this regard. We will talk first about the direct object pronouns.

The Direct Object Pronouns in French

The direct object pronouns indicate a direct reception of action. In English, these are easy to distinguish because they are not preceded by any preposition (i.e. to, from, of. Here are some examples:

It is extremely important to remember that even though the direct object pronouns come after the verb in English (such as in the above examples), they precede the verb in French.

The Direct Object Pronouns in French

*me, m' = me (1st p. sing.) nous = us (1st p. plur.)
*te, t' = you (2nd. p. sing.) vous = you (2nd. p. sing./plur.)
*le, la, l' = him, her, it (3rd p. sing.) les = them (3rd. p. plur.)

*These pronouns replace the 'e' or 'a' with an apostrophe before a verb beginning with a vowel sound.

As noted above, the direct object pronouns in French directly precede the verb. It is also important to know that when the direct object pronoun is used in conjunction with a verb in a compound tense, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the direct object pronoun. When using a futur proche construction with aller, the direct object pronoun will be inserted between the conjugated form of aller and the infinitive. In a negative construction, the direct object pronoun normally comes after "ne" and before the verb. There are some exceptions in more complex verb constructions.

Additionally, when le and les are direct object pronouns following the preposition de, do not contract them to du or des as you would if they were definite articles.

The examples below will help illustrate these rules:

The Indirect Object Pronouns in French

The indirect object pronouns in English differ from direct object pronouns because they are usually preceded by a preposition of some sort (i.e. of, from, to). The indirect object pronoun forms are the same as the direct object pronouns. In French, however, the indirect object pronouns are not typically preceded by a preposition. Sometimes, the indirect object pronouns vary depending on which preposition is implied. First, we will discuss the indirect object pronouns which imply the preposition à.

The Indirect Object Pronouns in French

*me, m'= to me (1st p. sing.) nous= to us (1st p. plur.)
*te, t'to you, about you (2nd. p. sing.) vous = to you (2nd. p. sing./plur.)
lui = to him, to her, to it (3rd p. sing.) leur= to them (3rd. p. plur.)

While the translations in the above table are given as "to me"..., these pronouns can sometimes be translated as "at me"... and, rarely, other prepositions. Normally, "to" is the proper translation:

*Note that even though "to tell" does not require an indirect object in English, it does in French. The reverse is sometimes true as well. For example, the verbs regarder (to look at) and chercher (to look for) take direct objects in French instead of the indirect objects in English. Here are a couple of examples:

In compound tenses, the past participle never agrees with an indirect object whereas it must always agree with a direct object that precedes the verb. Also note that a sentence can, and often does, have both a direct and an indirect object pronoun. (See the table below to determine in what order to place the pronouns.) Most often, in a sentence with both a direct and indirect object, the direct object will not be converted to a pronoun. Here are some examples of the indirect object pronouns used in sentences:

The Pronouns y and en.

The pronouns y and en have a special place in the French language and are not easily defined in all cases. Generally speaking, the pronoun y is a direct object pronoun most often referring back to a place. Usually, the best translation is "there". Take the following examples:

The pronoun y can be used in conjuction with other direct object pronouns and reflexive pronouns. It will follow all direct object pronouns.

The pronoun en can have many meanings and is, of sorts, an indirect object pronoun. It is used in cases where the implied pronoun is one other than à Often, it is translated as "about + person or thing". It is usually the pronoun replacement for "de + object." Note the following examples:

In some cases, use of "en" is optional and can be replaced by using the correct preposition with the disjunctive pronoun. Usually, the disjunctive pronouns are used when the object being replaced is a person or persons:

The disjunctive pronouns will be discussed in more depth in their own section.

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Last revised 16 February 1999.