Introduction to pronouns in French

The term pronoun refers to the special words like English me, him, it etc that are used to 'stand in for' a noun or noun phrase. For example, instead of saying John saw the postman we can say John saw him1.

French and related languages have a system of pronouns which is quite different from English pronouns. Let's dive straight in and look at an example. This is how to say David looks at Jean and David looks at him in French:

David regarde Jean
David looks at Jean
David le regarde
David looks at him
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The first sentence essentially translates word for word (allowing for the fact that look at is two words in English, but regarde is just a single word). The word order in French is subject-verb-object, just as in English. But in the second example, the underlined word le– meaning him– comes before the verb.

When the object of the verb is a pronoun in French, a special system of pronouns is used that come before the verb.

So literally in French, to say David looks at Jean, you say something like David Jean-looks. It's a tiny bit like when in English you say she horse-rides or they're flat-hunting. But in French, this word order is always used when the object is a pronoun.

On the next pages, we look at various topics covering French pronouns:

  • firstly, we look at the common case of saying him and her when they represent the direct object, using the French pronouns le and la;
  • then, we look at a similar case of saying they in French, using the pronoun les;
  • the subsequent section on the pronouns lui and leur looks out how to say him/her/them in French in the sense of I gave him a book;
  • the pronouns me and te (and vous), which are actually less complicated cases than the previously mentioned pronouns, are used to say me and you.

1. Strictly speaking, this view of a pronoun 'standing in for a noun' is problematic. For example, in the case of I or you, it's not entirely clear that these pronouns are really 'standing in' for anything else, or what that something else would be. And we'll see that, particularly in French, the grammar of pronouns is actually different to that of noun (phrases) in some quite fundamental ways. But the view of pronouns 'standing in for a noun' is a common one, and it will generally be good enough here.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.