Sentence structure is an important part of language, and French is no different. Sentences in French are constructed methodically, often beginning with the subject of a sentence, followed by a verb and finally a direct object or object pronoun.

But what is an object pronoun, exactly?

The 5 Types of French Object Pronouns

In linguistics, a grammatical object is simply whatever a verb acts upon—typically a person or thing. In English, we utilize three types of objects:

  1. A direct object receives the action of a verb. In the sentence John drank the coffee, the direct object is coffee.
  2. An indirect object receives the direct object. In the sentence The barista gave a coffee to John, the indirect object is John.
  3. An object of a preposition, similarly, is a noun that follows and gives meaning to a preposition. In the sentence The coffee is for John, the object of the preposition (for) is John.

If you don't want to clearly name the object, for whatever reason, you can use an object pronoun instead. For example, it functions as a direct object pronoun in the sentence John drank it.

French has 13 object pronouns (me, te, se, nous, vous, se, la, le, les, lui, leur, y, and en), falling into four categories. Some pronouns, such as me and te, fall into multiple categories.

1) Direct Object Pronouns      

The pronoms compléments d’objet direct, or direct object pronouns, are me (me), te (you),  le (him/it) , la (her/it), nous (us), vous (you all/you [plural]), and les (them). They get placed before a verb and show what receives the action of that verb.

  • Je connais Jeanette. Je l’ai vue à côté de la fenêtre.
    (“I know Jeanette. I saw her by the window.”)
  • Les fleurs ? Il les a offertes à son grand amour.
    (“The flowers? He offered them to his great love.”)
  • Les lettres ? Nous ne les avions pas reçues.
    (“The letters? We didn't receive them.”)

And no, that isn’t a typo! In French, it is necessary to precede question marks with a space.

Note: The pronouns me, te, le and la can be shortened to m', t', or l' when preceding a vowel or silent h, as seen in the first example sentence. This simply makes their pronunciation a little bit smoother.

2) Indirect Object Pronouns

The pronoms compléments d’objet indirect, or indirect object pronouns, are me (me), te (you), lui (him/her), nous (us), vous (you all/you [plural]) and leur (them). Just as in English, indirect object pronouns tend to be connected to a verb via a preposition, such as à (to) or pour (for).

  • Elle leur aura envoyé le colis.
    (“She will have sent them the package.”)
  • Il ne lui a pas expliqué la situation.
    (“He didn't explain the situation to her.”)
  • On lui a donné l’herbe-aux-chats.  
    (“We gave him/her catnip.”)

3) Reflexive Pronouns

The reflexive pronouns me (myself), te (yourself), se (himself/herself/itself), nous (ourselves), vous (yourselves), se (themselves) show that the subject of a sentence is performing an action upon itself.

Furthermore, reflexive pronouns are used only in pronominal verb constructions. Reflexive pronominal verb constructions indicate that the subject(s) of a sentence performs an action on itself/themselves. There are also idiomatic pronominal verb constructions, in which a verb is paired with a pronoun, despite not clearly being a reflexive verb.

  • Ils se sont embrassés.
    (“They kissed [each other].”)
  • Je ne me suis pas lavé les cheveux.
    (“I did not wash [myself] my hair.”)
  • Nous nous sommes parlé.
    (“We talked/spoke to [each other].”)
  • Vous vous êtes promenés.
    (“You all walked [yourselves] around.”)

Notice how some verbs are reflexive in French but not in English, such as se laver (to wash). While in English it's implicitly understood that you're acting upon (washing) yourself, this must be explicitly stated in French.

4) Adverbial Pronouns

The pronoun y is used to replace a preposition (other than de) and a thing, often a place. It is frequently translated as “there” in English. Conversely, the pronoun en is used to replace the preposition de and a thing. The thing is often a noun preceded by an expression of quantity.

  • Ils y trouvent les clefs.
    (“They find the keys there.”)
  • Elles s’y étaient assises quand le film a commencé.
    (“They were sitting there when the movie started.”)
  • Il en donne aux clients.
    (“He gives it to customers.”)
  • Nous en avons mangé un peu.
    (“We ate a bit [of it].”)

If referring to an idea, or an entire clause, y can be translated into English as “it”:  

  • Nous y réfléchissons.
    (“We are reflecting (on) it.”)
  • Je n’y avais pas pensé.    
    (“I did not think (about) it.”)

En can also refer to a place or an idea:

  • On a adoré cette île. On vient d’en arriver et on garde toujours une vive impression de la nature qui s’y trouve.
    (“We loved this island. We have just arrived [from there] and we still have a vivid impression of the nature there.”)
  • La chorégraphie est difficile à apprendre, mais tu en es capable.
    (“Choreography is difficult to learn, but you can do it.”)

5) Stressed Pronouns

The stressed pronouns, or pronoms toniques, are used to provide emphasis in a sentence. You’ll see them after imperatives (commands), before certain prepositions, and in a variety of other situations, too.

They’re simple to use—simply swap a pronom sujet out for its associated pronom tonique.

Pronoms sujets
Pronoms toniques
Je (“I”) Moi (“me”)
Tu (“you”) Toi (“you”)
Il, elle “he, she” Lui, elle (“him, her”)
Nous (“we”) Nous (“us”)
Vous (“you [all], you formal”) Vous (“you”)
Ils, elles (“they”) Eux, elles (“them”)
On (“we”, people in general)
On (“we”)
Soi (“oneself”)
Nous (“us”)

Here are a number of places where you can use stressed pronouns:

  1. To emphasise identity in speech.
    Moi, j'adore voyager. (“I love to travel.”)
  2. When making comparisons.
    Je suis plus grande que toi. (“I am taller than you.”)
  3. In certain imperative constructions.
    Donne-moi ça. (“Give me that.”)
  4. To act as the subject and the verb is implied.
    Qui a fait ça ? - Moi. (“Who did this? - I did.”)
  5. After a preposition: à, par, pour, en, vers, avec, de, sans, etc.
    Je viens avec toi. (“I'm coming with you.”)
  6. With conjunctions: ni, et, où, comme, etc.
    J'adore le sport, comme toi. (“I love sports, like you.”)
  7. In emphatic constructions:
    C'est lui qui a dit ça. (“He said that.”)
  8. Before même, to provide emphasis:
    Je l'ai fait moi-même. (“I made it myself.”)

The Imperative

The impératif is a form of verbs used to make commands. In this form, verbs have a limited set of conjugations: the second person singular, the second person plural, and the first person plural. Furthermore, there’s no need to precede conjugated verbs with a subject personal pronoun.

To make the impératif, simpy:

1. Change a verb into its verb stem
2. Add -e, -ons or -ez to the same stem (the same conjugations as those of the present indicative)

In the second person singular, the imperative “s” is not used with 1st-group verbs, nor for certain third-group verbs, such as offrir (offer) or ouvrir (open).

  1. Termine ton repas s’il te plaît.
    (“Please finish your meal.”)
  2. Dépêche-toi.
    (“Hurry.”)
  3. Ouvre cette porte.
    (“Open this door.”)

For verbs followed by the pronouns en or y: an “s” does get added:

  1. Pense à prendre ton téléphone. (“Remember to take your phone.”)
      But → Penses-y. (“Remember it.”)
  2. Mange un peu de gâteau. (“Eat some cake.”)
      But → Manges-en. (“Eat some.”)
  3. Va dans ta chambre. (“Go to your room.”)
      But → Vas-y. (“Go [there].”)

The Word Order of Object Pronouns

Typically speaking, direct object pronouns go after a sentence's subject but before the sentence's verb—in the first example sentence from the graphic above, notice how both on and me come before voit.

This might take a bit of getting used to, as normal direct objects (les autres from the second example sentence) and proper nouns (such as Dominique, from the fourth example sentence) go after the verb.

In the Case of Compound Tenses

This rule about object pronouns preceding verbs also applies to verbs in compound tenses, such as the passé composé, the plus-que-parfait, and the futur antérieur. In such cases, pronouns appear before the auxiliary verb, such as a (of avoir) in the first example.

In the case of the futur proche, the object pronoun goes between the verb aller and the infinitive verb, as in the second example.

This is also the general procedure for conjugated verbs followed by an infinitive: the object pronoun goes between the conjugated verb and the infinitive.

In the Case of Negation

For negative sentences, the ne and the pas frame the object pronoun and conjugated verb.

When using the futur proche or a conjugated verb followed by an infinitive, the ne and the pas frame the conjugated verb, with the object pronoun appearing before the infinitive.

When using negative infinitives, the object pronoun appears between ne pas and the infinitive.  

In the Case of Imperatives

In affirmative imperative sentences, in which you're commanding someone to do something, the pronoun is attached to the end of the command:

  • Prenez-le.
    (“Take it.”)
  • Écoute-moi.
    (“Listen to me.”)
  • Manges-en.
    (“Eat it.”)

For negative commands, in which you tell someone not to do something, the pronoun goes before the verb.

  • Ne le prenez pas.
    (“Don't take it.”)
  • Ne m’écoute pas.
    (“Don't listen to me.”)
  • N’en mange pas.    
    (“Don't eat it.”)

Les Doubles Pronoms

Les doubles pronoms, or doubled pronouns, are frequently used when a single verb is connected to two objects, both of which are made clear by context.

  • On ne la leur a pas donné.
    (“We didn't give it to them.”)
  • Elle le lui enverra.
    (“She will send it to them.”)
  • Ils s’en sont offert.
    (“They offered some to themselves.”)
  • Vous la lui racontez.
    (“You tell it to him.”)
  • Il s’en sert.
    (“He uses it.”)    

As in the case of using single pronouns, doubled pronouns are generally placed before the verb, as we see above. They also follow a specific order:

Exceptions to the order of pronouns in the table above occurs in positive imperative sentences, as we’ve already seen in the case of single pronouns.

Before en, me and te change to m’ and t’, respectively:

  • Donne-m’en un peu.
    (“Give me some (of it).”)
  • Sers-t’en.
    (“Use it.”)

Conclusion

Object pronouns can get complex and there are quite a few of them in French, but just as in English, the main thing to remember is what they refer to and the order in which they appear. Luckily, their use is quite methodical, following a consistent logic, with an order that seldom deviates from the above established patterns. With a little practice, it'll soon feel like second nature!

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Read more

  1. Understanding French Pronominal Verbs
  2. How to Use The French Pronouns Y and EN
  3. How to Use Relative Clauses and Pronouns in French
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