french object pronouns

Hot on the Trail of French Object Pronouns: Spotting Them and Using Them Effectively

Grammar is like a code.

At first glance it appears complicated, but once you know how it works, it’s a handy tool that gets you where you need to go.

Take pronouns. Pronouns are essential to smooth-flowing, unstilted French.

For English speakers, though, French pronouns can be a little tricky.

Not only are there quite a few of them, but they vary depending on whether they are replacing a person, a place, a thing or an idea.

Furthermore, when there’s more than one pronoun in a sentence, they have to be arranged in a specific order.

No need to stress, though!

Ever heard the French proverb Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid (Little by little, the bird makes its nest)?

Well, it’s the key to mastering French pronouns (and taking the initiative to master French in general): little by little, one grammatical concept at a time.

Little by little, a French learner builds his/her grammar.

Today, we’re going to focus on object pronouns, of which there are three types:

  • Direct object pronouns
  • Indirect object pronouns
  • Neuter object pronouns

So let’s get started! What do you say?

What’s the Object Here? Direct Object Pronouns

First things first: In order to use direct object pronouns, you have to be able to identify the direct object in a sentence.

A direct object is a person or a thing that receives the action of a verb.

Take this sentence:

Marie lit le journal. (Marie reads the newspaper.)

Le journal (the newspaper) is the direct object in this case. It’s receiving Marie’s action (reading).

Here’s another:

Je vois Mireille. (I see Mireille.)

The direct object in this case is Mireille.

A good way to identify the direct object in a sentence is to learn to ask questions that start with “what” or “who”:

What is Marie reading? The newspaper.

Who do I see? Mireille.

Direct object pronouns replace direct object nouns. They must take into account the gender and quantity of the noun they replace.

Here they are:

me / m’ — me

te / t’ — you

le / l’ — him, it

la / l’ — her, it

nous — us

vous — you

les — them

Let’s replace the direct objects in the sentences above with direct object pronouns:

Marie lit le journal. (Marie reads the newspaper.)

Marie le lit. (Marie reads it.)

Je vois Mireille. (I see Mireille.)

Je la vois. (I see her.)

The direct object pronoun goes in front of the conjugated verb. This applies to both simple (present, simple past, etc.) and compound tenses (the compound past, the past perfect or pluperfect, etc.)

In the case of compound tenses, which are made up of two elements, être (to be) or avoir (to have) and a past participle, the direct object pronoun goes in front of the helping verb.

So remember Marie and her newspaper? Here she is again, this time in the passé composé (compound past): 

Marie a lu le journal. (Marie read the newspaper.)

Marie l’a lu. (Marie read it.)

If we cruise on autopilot, though, we risk committing a French cardinal sin when we run into a direct object that is masculine plural, feminine singular or feminine plural: disagreement.

When a direct object precedes the passé composé or any other compound tense, the past participle has to agree with the direct object.

J’ai vu Mireille. (I saw Mireille.)

Je l’ai vue. (I saw her.)

Here we have to add the e at the end of the past participle because Mireille is feminine singular. When the person or object is masculine singular, nothing changes.

However, we do add an s to the past participle in the case of a masculine plural direct object pronoun:

J’ai vu Thomas et Jean. (I saw Thomas and John.)

Je les ai vus. (I saw them.)

When the direct object pronoun refers to a group that is feminine and plural, we add both an e and an s to the past participle.

J’ai vu Mireille et Marie. (I saw Mireille and Marie.)

Je les ai vues. (I saw them.)

Negation and the Direct Object Pronoun

This is where things are going to get negative. Negative form, that is!

In simple tenses, like the present, future, imperfect and passé simple (simple past), object pronouns are placed between the ne and the verb.

Here’s what I mean:

Marie ne lit pas le journal. (Marie doesn’t read the newspaper.) 

Marie ne le lit pas. (Marie doesn’t read it.)

Je ne vois pas Mireille. (I don’t see Mireille.)

Je ne la vois pas. (I don’t see her.)

In compound tenses, object pronouns are placed between the ne and the auxiliary verb. The same rules of agreement mentioned above apply.

Marie n’a pas lu le journal. (Marie did not read the newspaper.)

Marie ne l’a pas lu. (Marie didn’t read it.)

Je n’ai pas vu Mireille. (I didn’t see Mireille.)

Je ne l’ai pas vue. (I didn’t see her.)

To Whom Do You Object? Indirect Object Pronouns

Let’s move on to indirect object pronouns. 

An indirect object refers to the noun to/for whom the action of the verb is occurring. An indirect object is usually preceded by pour (for) or à (to, at). The indirect object responds to the question “To whom?” or “For whom?”

Marianne parle à Jeanne. (Marianne speaks to Jeanne.)

To whom does Marianne speak? To Jeanne. Jeanne is the indirect object.

Jacques écrit à Jacqueline. (Jacques writes to Jacqueline.)

To whom does Jacques write? To Jacqueline. Jacqueline is therefore the indirect object.

Here are the indirect object pronouns:

me / m’ — me

te / t’ — you

lui — him/her

nous  us

vous — you

leur — them

They replace the indirect object. So far so good? Okay, now get this:

While the indirect object can be people or things, indirect object pronouns can only refer to people or animate nouns (animate meaning living and breathing, like a cat or a turtle).

When the direct object is inanimate, we use the adverbial pronoun y or an indefinite demonstrative pronoun. Let’s not worry about that right now, though. That’s for another day.

Going back to indirect object pronouns:

Marianne parle à Jeanne. (Marianne talks to Jeanne.)

Marianne lui parle. (Marianne talks to her.)

Jacques écrit à Jacqueline. (Jacques writes to Jacqueline.)

Jacques lui écrit. (Jacques writes to her.)

When we use lui (him or her), a sentence can be ambiguous. We can make things more clear by adding the preposition à + the stressed pronoun elle (her). We place it after the verb.  

Marianne lui parle à elle. (Marianne speaks to her.)

Jacques lui écrit à elle(Jacques writes to her.)

In the case of compound tenses, the indirect object pronoun usually goes before the helping verb.

Also, just be aware that there are certain verbs that do not work with indirect object pronouns. These require another type of pronoun, usually an adverbial or indefinite demonstrative pronoun.

Getting Things in Order: Direct Objects and Indirect Objects Together

When a sentence contains both a direct and an indirect object, they can each be replaced with direct and indirect object pronouns, respectively.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

Nicolas achète un café pour moi. (Nicolas buys a coffee for me.)

What does Nicolas buy? Coffee. Coffee is the direct object.

Since café is masculine and singular, it gets replaced by the direct object pronoun le. For whom does Nicolas buy coffee? For me, the indirect object. The French indirect object pronoun is me.

In the case of the first and second person, the direct object pronoun is usually closest to the verb of which it is the object.

Nicolas me l’achète. (Nicolas buys it for me.)

In the case of the third person singular and plural, the order changes. This time, the indirect object pronoun is closest to the verb.

Here’s an example:

Nicolas achète le café pour Perrine. (Nicolas buys the coffee for Perrine.)

“Coffee” is the direct object. This time, Perrine (third person singular) is the indirect object. Perrine will be replaced by lui (her).

When we use pronouns, the sentence becomes:

Nicolas le lui achète. (Nicolas bought it for her.)

Let’s Object! Using the Imperative Form with Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns

The French imperative form can be used to express a desire, give advice, make a request, make a recommendation or give an order.

It’s important to note that:

  • The imperative only applies to tu (you, singular informal), nous (we) and vous (you, plural or formal) verb forms.
  • The tu form of the imperative is usually the indicative minus the final s.

Here are some examples:

Mangez la soupe ! (Eat the soup!)

Lisez la deuxième page ! (Read the second page!)

Mange les pâtes ! (Eat the pasta!)

Lisons le livre ensemble. (Let’s read the book together.)

The negative imperative, in which you tell someone not to do something, is formed by adding ne in front of the verb and pas (or another negative adverb) on the other side.

Ne lisez pas la deuxième page. (Don’t read the second page.)

Ne mange pas les pâtes. (Don’t eat the pasta.)

Ne lisons pas le livre ensemble. (Let’s not read the book together.) 

It’s important to note that there are two forms of the imperative: positive and negative. Now, let’s move on to the indirect object and direct object pronouns using the positive and negative imperative.

In the affirmative imperative, pronouns follow the verb and are connected with hyphens:

Mangez la soupe ! (Eat the soup!)

Mangez-la ! (Eat it!)

Lisez la deuxième page ! (Read the second page!)

Lisez-la ! (Read it!)

Lisons le livre ensemble. (Let’s read the book together.)

Lisons-le ! (Let’s read it!) 

The pronouns me and te change to moi and toi in the imperative form:

Laisse-moi tranquille. (Leave me alone.)

Regarde-toi dans le miroir. (Look at yourself in the mirror.)

When a sentence has a direct object and an indirect object, the order of pronouns is a little bit funky. For the affirmative imperative, the order of direct object and indirect object pronouns is as follows:

Le, la, les/moi, toi, lui/nous, vous, leur

Expliquons l’equation à Thomas et Lilly ! (Let’s explain the equation to Thomas and Lilly!)

In this sentence, the equation is the direct object and Thomas and Lilly are the indirect objects. With pronouns, the sentence becomes:

Expliquons-la-leur ! (Let’s explain it to them!)

For the negative imperative, the negative structure—such as ne…pas (not) or ne…jamais (never)—surrounds the pronouns and the verb. There are no hyphens and the order of the direct and indirect object pronouns is a bit different:

me, te, nous, vous/le, la, les/lui, leur 

N’expliquons pas l’equation à Thomas et Lilly. (Let’s not explain the equation to Thomas and Lilly.)

Ne la leur expliquons pas ! (Let’s not explain it to them!)

A Handy Language Device: The Neuter Object Pronoun

Still with me? Okay, great. This is the last one, I promise!

Now we’re going to shift gears to the neuter object pronoun.

Unlike other object pronouns, the neuter object pronoun is optional and although sometimes used in spoken French, it’s more commonly reserved for writing. I know you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, so what’s the point? Where is she going with this?”

There’s only one neuter object pronoun: le.

You see, the neuter object pronoun is a way of making your French more smooth and elegant.

Smooth and elegant French + You = People thinking you’re French

Since the neuter object pronoun is a relatively abstract concept (mainly because it cannot be directly translated into English), it’s best understood by way of example.

When (and How) the Neuter Object Pronoun Is Used

  • To replace a previously referenced idea.

Imagine someone asks you the question Êtes-vous français(e) ? (Are you French?)

There are a few ways to respond. If you’re more of the silent type you could simply say, Oui (Yes).

But remember your French teacher from high school who would always say, Une phrase complète, s’il vous plaît (A complete sentence, please)?

Oui, je suis français(e) (Yes, I am French) is another way of responding.

However, instead of restating français(e) (French), you can replace it with the neuter object pronoun and say, Oui, je le suis, which translates to a more fluent-sounding “Yes, I am.”

Regardless of whether you’re français (French and male) or française (French and female), the neuter object pronoun is always le. This is because it’s not referring to you, but rather the state/idea/concept of being French.

  • To negatively express opinion and desire.

To negatively express opinion or desire in French, we can use constructions such as ne pas croire (to not believe), ne pas penser (to not think) or ne pas vouloir (to not want).

— Est-ce que Thomas va bientôt arriver ? (Is Thomas going to arrive soon?)

— Non, je ne le pense pas. (No, I don’t think so.)

— Allons au cinéma tous ensemble ! (Let’s all go to the movies together!)

— Non, je ne le veux pas. (No, I don’t want to.)

  • In the second clause of a comparison using aussi (equally, as in “as good as”), autre (another, alternative), autrement (differently), comme (like, such as), plus (more), moins (less), mieux (better)…

Sarah est plus sympa que je ne le croyais. (Sarah is nicer than I thought.)

Regarde ma bague ! Elle vaut moins que tu le crois. (Look at my ring! It’s worth less than you think.)

  • With certain verbs, specifically croire (to believe), devoir (to have to), dire (to say), falloir (to have to, to need to), oser (to dare), penser (to think), pouvoir (to be able to), savoir (to know) or vouloir (to want).

Comme tu le dis, ce gâteau est divin ! (As you say, this cake is divine!)

Aide-moi quand tu le pourras. (Help me when you can.)

And there you have it!

With object pronouns under your belt, you’re well on your way to becoming a French grammar boss.

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