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How to use French subject pronouns?

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Subject pronouns in English are words like “I”, “you,” or “he.” They are words that replace the subject of a sentence. The subject is who or what is performing an action or is being described. But did you know that French has two forms of “we,” two forms of “you,” and — guess what — two forms of  “they”? Let’s dive in to find out why!

Subject pronouns in English are words like “I”, “you,” or “he.” They are words that replace the subject of a sentence. The subject is who or what is performing an action or is being described. But did you know that French has two forms of “we,” two forms of “you,” and — guess what — two forms of  “they”? Let’s dive in to find out why!

How to identify the subject of a sentence and replace it with the correct pronoun?

Step 1: Ask yourself who or what is performing the action of the verb.
  Charlotte prend le bus.Charlotte is taking the bus.
Who is taking the bus? ⇒ Charlotte. Therefore, this is the subject of the verb prend. 

Step 2: Use a subject pronoun to avoid repetition.
  Charlotte prend le bus. Charlotte est en retard.
 
Charlotte is taking the bus. Charlotte is late.

In the sentences above, the second instance of “Charlotte” can be
replaced by “she”, which is elle in French:

Charlotte prend le bus. Elle est en retard.
Charlotte is taking the bus. She is late.


Here is a resource to help you understand how to find the subject of the sentence.

French subject pronouns

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If you think of a pronoun as “pro + noun” (meaning “instead of noun”) you will remember that the pronoun replaces the noun! A noun can be a person, an animal, a place, or a thing. In French, it can be feminine or masculine. This is the gender of the noun. Pay attention to this to choose the correct subject pronoun.

Now that you are aware of the subject pronouns, let’s take a closer look at some of them.

Subject pronoun je.

  • Je is capitalized only at the beginning of the sentence, unlike the English “I.”

  • Je becomes j’ in front of a vowel or the letter h.

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Exception:

Use je in front of verbs starting with an aspirated h (an “h” which acts like a consonant). Here are some examples:

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Subject pronoun on: five ways to use it

  1. To refer to people in general:
    En France, on mange beaucoup de pain ! 
    In France, people eat a lot of bread!

  2. To say “you,” meaning one or everyone
    On doit se brosser les dents deux fois par jour.
    You must brush your teeth twice a day.

  3. To say someone:
    On m’a dit que Mme Deleau a déménagé.

    Someone told me / I was told that Mrs Deleau has moved house.

  4. When referring to unknown people:
    On va lui faire une piqûre.
    He is going to be given an injection.

  5. To say “we”: let’s explore below ↴

How do you choose between on and nous?

The English pronoun “we” has two possible translations in French. On is used in speaking and informal writing, and nous is used in formal speech and writing. If I sent my friends a text, I would type, “On va au ciné ?” [Shall we go to the cinema?]. But the French president would say “Nous devons rester unis” [We must stay united].
You will use on 90% of the time.

 IMPORTANT:

Did you know? On is conjugated as a 3rd person singular in most tenses, although it often refers to a group of people. You say, on mange to mean “we eat.”

BUT: in the passé composé [perfect tense] with the auxiliary être [to be], the past participle takes the plural mark -s: Hier, on est allés à la patinoire. [Yesterday, we went to the ice rink].

So we have two forms of “we,” because on is informal and nous is formal. Now why do you think we have two forms of “you”?

How should I use tu and vous?

  • Use tu to address people informally: with your family, your friends, your colleagues, and with children. Children and young people use tu among themselves. Beware when random people in the street stop addressing you with tu, it’s seen as a sign of aging! 

       Marc, tu t’occupes d’organiser la réunion ? Marc, are you organizing the meeting?

⤷ TIP: Sound like a native: replace tu with t’ when the verb starts with a vowel: 
T’as de la monnaie ? [Do you have any change?] T’es où ? [Where are you?]. 
But remember not to use t’ with an aspirated h (see above).

  • Use vous:

    • to address people formally e.g. to talk to someone with respect like your teacher, or your director, or to address a person you don’t know well like your dentist, or a shop assistant

    Bonjour madame, est-ce que vous vendez des piles ?
    Good morning, madam, do you sell batteries?

    • to talk to a group of people, regardless if they are your friends or people you don’t know

    Jean et Nicolas, vous voulez un jus de fruit ?   
    Jean and Nicolas, would you like a fruit juice?

  IMPORTANT:

It is best to use vous when you meet an adult for the first time, because some people might get offended by too much familiarity. Your interlocutor will offer to switch to the informal tu by asking “On se tutoie ?” or “On peut se tutoyer ?” [Shall we use tu?].

Here is another resource if you want to know more about how to say “you” in French


So far, you’ve seen that on and tu are informal and nous and vous are formal. What do you think about ils and elles [they]?

How to use il(s) / elle(s)?

Remember that nouns have a gender: masculine or feminine. Gender is the reason why we have two ways to say “they,” not formality! Here are the rules for using il / elle/ ils/ elles:

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Did you know? Iel is very much seen on social media, although it is not yet officially recognized as a pronoun by the Académie Française (the institute which standardizes the French language). There are other, less common, forms of spellings used for iel. You can see them in this French article.

Didn’t want to read the full article?

Remember these important points:

  • Use the subject pronouns as the subject of a sentence and/or to avoid repeating the subject of the sentence.

  • Je becomes J’ in front of vowels and the letter h, except certain verbs like hurler, haïr, or humer [to sniff].

  • Use on when you speak, keep nous for formal writing. If you speak to two people or more, or if you want to be polite and show respect to your elders, use vous [you] rather than tu [you].

  • Use il(s)/elle(s) to refer to people, animals, and things. 

There is more to the topic: French also has stressed subject pronouns!

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Agnes Finot

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