Pronouns are words that we use to replace nouns in a sentence, and they can be quite tricky to get the hang of. When it comes to French pronouns, the most commonly used pronouns are personal pronouns, but even in that category there are many kinds that you need to learn in order to master the French language.
This isn’t an easy subject, and it’s certainly not a fun one, but I’m going to tell you about the different kinds of pronouns, and you can always refer to this guide later when you need a reminder of how to use the dreaded French pronouns. Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…
The first kind of French personal pronouns that we’re going to look at are subject pronouns. These are used to replace the subject of the sentence; the person or thing that is doing the action.
|Il||He or it|
|Elle||She or it|
|Ils / elles||They|
On = one, commonly used instead of nous to mean “we”.
Every word in French has a gender, for example un stylo (a pen) would be replaced by the subject pronoun “il”, while une chaise (a chair) would take the feminine pronoun “elle”.
- Je mange du pain
I eat bread
- Thomas mange du pain – il mange du pain
Thomas eats bread – he eats bread
(“Il” replaces the name “Thomas”)
The object of the sentence is having something done to it.
For example, in “I am using a pen”, the pen is the object. In “you’re driving a car”, the car is the object. These words can of course be replaced by a pronoun – this time it has to be an object pronoun.
As if that didn’t sound complicated enough, there are two kinds of French object pronouns: direct and indirect.
How do you know if it’s a direct or indirect object?
If there’s no preposition before the noun then the noun is a direct object. These can be replaced by a direct object pronoun (in red).
- Je mange une pomme – Je la mange
I’m eating an apple – I’m eating it
- Tu fais le ménage – Tu le fais
You do the housework – You do it
If there’s a preposition before the noun then it is an indirect object which can be replaced by an indirect object pronoun. These are used if the verb is being done to somebody or something.
- Je parle à Lucas – Je lui parle
I’m speaking to Lucas – I’m speaking to him
- Je téléphone à mes amis – Je leur téléphone
I’m calling my friends – I’m calling them
Interrogative pronouns are words that you’ve probably heard before, as we learn them quite early on. To put it simply: Interrogative pronouns are question words.
|À quoi||Of what|
- Qui est le patron ? – Who is the boss?
- Que se passe-t-il ? – What is happening?
- À qui appartient cette veste ? – Whose jacket is this?
- À quoi tu penses ? – What are you thinking about?
French possessive pronouns do what they say: they show possession.
|le mien / la mienne||Mine|
|le tien / la tienne||Yours|
|le sien / la sienne||His/Hers|
|le nôtre / la nôtre||Ours|
|le vôtre / la vôtre||Yours|
|le leur / la leur||Theirs|
Not to be confused with possessive adjectives which are used before nouns to show ownership. Possessive pronouns replace the noun entirely.
Here, the masculine and feminine brings a whole new realm of confusion. They refer to the gender of the noun and not the gender of the owner. The same rule applies to plurals, where there may only be one owner, but if the noun is plural then the pronoun that replaces it must be plural too.
- Sont-elles tes chaussures ? – Sont-elles les tiennes ?
Are they your shoes? – Are they yours?
- J’ai perdu mon livre, mais j’ai trouvé le tien
I’ve lost my book, but I’ve found yours
- Nous avons nos billets pour le spectacle, mes parents ont les leurs, avez-vous les vôtres ?
We have our tickets for the show, my parents have theirs, do you have yours?
While direct and indirect object pronouns show that the subject is performing an action on another person or thing, reflexive pronouns show that the subject is performing the action on itself.
Here are a few examples. In order to help you understand, practise saying the following sentences aloud.
- Je m’appelle Laura – My name is Laura (I call myself Laura)
- Tu te laves les mains – You wash your hands
- Il se lève à 8 heures – He gets up at 8 o’clock
- Nous nous voyons toutes les semaines – We see each other every week
- Ils se sont endormis devant la télé – They fell asleep in front of the television
Now, this is where things get even more complicated…
In any sentence you need a subject pronoun even with a reflexive verb, meaning you may have to repeat the pronoun twice. You might get a better understanding of it with other examples, so here the subject pronoun is in red and the reflexive pronoun is in blue.
- Comment tu t’appelles ? What’s your name? (Informal)
What’s your name? (literally: How do you call yourself?)
- Comment vous vous appelez ? What’s your name? (Polite)
What’s your name? (literally: How do you call yourself?)
- Ils se sont trompés d’adresse
They got the address wrong
- Nous nous sommes trompés d’adresse
We got the address wrong
A relative pronoun connects a relative clause (additional information) to a main clause (the main part of the sentence) so that you don’t have to repeat the same subject or object several times in one sentence.
|Ou||when, where, which, that|
|Que||whom, what, which, that|
which, that, whom
|Dont||of which, from which, that
|Lequel(s) / Laquelle(s)||what, which, that|
We’re often taught that “qui” means “who” and “que” means “that”. This is true in some cases, but it isn’t always that simple. Both can be used to mean THAT.
“Que” is used to replace the direct object in a sentence:
- Le livre que j’ai lu – The book that I read
- La personne que je cherche – The person that I’m looking for
“Qui” replaces the subject:
- Le livre qui parle de la deuxième guerre mondiale
The book that talks about the Second World War
- La personne qui chante
The person that is singing/the person who is singing
As you can see, unlike in English, both of these pronouns can replace a person or an object. “Que” should be used in a sentence alongside a subject and verb, while “qui” must be followed by a conjugated verb.
Relative pronouns often replace the indirect object, but the pronoun that is required varies depending on the preposition or lack thereof.
When a person is the indirect object in a sentence and comes after a preposition, you can replace the person with “qui”. This is the equivalent of “whom” in English.
- Elle habite avec cet homme – l’homme avec qui elle habite
She lives with this man – the man with whom she lives
- Tu enseignes l’anglais aux enfants – les enfants à qui tu enseignes l’anglais
You teach English to children – the children to whom you teach English
“Lequel”, its feminine equivalent “laquelle”, and the plurals “lequels” and “laquelles” are to replace an indirect object that is a thing (not a person) that follows a preposition.
We cannot use “lequel” or variations of it after the prepositions “de” and “a” or “au”. These must be transformed into the following:
a + lequel = auquel
de + lequel = duquel
- J’ai couru dans la rue – la rue dans laquelle j’ai couru
I ran in the street – the street in which I ran
- Vous faites la danse au spectacle – le spectacle auquel vous faites la danse
You dance in the show – the show in which you dance
- Je pense à la poésie – la poésie auquelle je pense
I’m thinking of poetry – the poetry about which I’m thinking
- Je me suis garé près du magasin – le magasin près duquel je me suis garé
I parked next to the shop – the shop near which I parked
Dont replaces any object, be it a person or a thing, that follows the word “de”.
- Hier je parlais d’un professeur – c’est le professeur dont je parlais hier
Yesterday I was talking about a teacher – that’s the teacher that/whom I was talking about yesterday
Dont can show possession, as the French pronoun equivalent of “whose”.
- J’ai trouvé le cahier d’un élève – c’est l’élève dont j’ai trouvé le cahier.
I found a student’s workbook – that’s the student whose workbook I found
Dont can also mean “including”, when you wish to refer to one thing in a group.
- Je fais partie d’un groupe de musique – le groupe de musique dont je fait partie
I’m in a band – the band which I’m in
- Il y a 9 épisodes dans la série, dont 3 se déroulent à Londres.
There are 9 episodes in the series, of which 3 take place in London
Dont vs duquel
When “de” is on its own, replace it with “dont”.
When “de” is part of another preposition, such as “pres de”, “a cote de”, you need “duquel”.
Où is a question word meaning “where”. It’s also a relative pronoun that can be used in the same way we use it in English.
- J’étudie à cet universite – L’université où j’étudie
I study at this university – the university where I study
The word “où” seems quite straightforward so far, it means, “where”, right? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it does have one additional meaning that may confuse you…
Where can mean when.
The word “when” has a French equivalent as an interrogative pronoun: Quand. When asking questions, you must of course use quand, however, it is not a relative pronoun. This means that when you want to use it as a relative pronoun you must instead use “où”.
- Octobre est le mois où on fête halloween
October is the month when we celebrate Halloween, or October is the month that we celebrate Halloween in
- Je m’en souviens du moment où il est parti
I remember the moment that he left
Où can be used after a preposition too, for example:
- Je viens de ce village – le village d’où je viens
I come from this village – the village that/where I come from
Some words refer to a specific noun that you’ve already spoken about in the sentence previously and do not need to repeat. In English, we use this one, that one, these and those. In French, they must agree with the noun (feminine, masucline or plural).
|Celui||This one/That one (masucline)|
|Celle||This one/That one (feminine)|
- J’ai mangé le gâteau au chocolat, celui que ta mère a fait.
I ate the chocolate cake, the one that your mother made
- J’aime la robe longue mais je n’aime pas celle qui est courte.
I like the long dress but not the short one.
We can also add a suffix onto the end of the demonstrative pronoun to say “this one here”, or “that one there” to differentiate between two nouns. The suffixes are “-ci” and “-là”. Adding “ci” is similar to saying “this one/these here”, while adding “là” shows that something is further away, “that one/those there”.
- J’ai deux stylos differents, celui-ci est bleu et celui-là est noir.
I have two different pens, this one is blue and that one is black.
French pronouns Y and EN are actually adverbs that we use as pronouns, hence their name.
We use “y” (pronounced ee as in “bee”) to replace a place or a word in a sentence that follows the prepositions a and en.
- Je vais à Paris. J’y vais pour mon anniversaire.
I’m going to Paris. I’m going there for my birthday.
- Je pense à la pandémie. J’y pense tous les jours.
I’m thinking about the pandemic. I think about it every day.
We use “en” (pronounced on) to replace a place or a word in a sentence that follows the preposition de.
- Il parle de politique. Il en parle tout le temps.
He’s talking about politics. He talks about it all the time.
- Pouvez-vous me prêter un stylo ? J’en ai besoin pour écrire.
Can you lend me a pen? I need one to write.
In this example, the last part of the sentence would be “J’ai besoin d’un stylo pour écrire” (I need a pen to write) which is quite a mouthful having already mentioned a pen. Stylo follows “de” so we can replace it with the pronoun en.
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