French Indirect Objects and Indirect Object Pronouns

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Indirect objects are the objects in a sentence to or for whom/what* the action of the verb occurs.

   I'm talking to Pierre.
   Je parle à Pierre.

To whom am I talking? To Pierre.

   He buys books for the students.
   Il achète des livres pour les étudiants.

For whom does he buy books? For the students.

*"For" only in the sense of a recipient as in, "I bought the gift for you" not when it means "on behalf of" (he speaks for all the members).

Indirect Object Pronouns 

Indirect object pronouns are the words that replace the indirect object, and in French, they can only refer to a person or other animate noun. The French indirect object pronouns are:

   me / m'   me
   te / t'   you
   lui   him, her
   nous   us
   vous   you
   leur   them

Me and te change to m' and t', respectively, in front of a vowel or mute H.

When deciding between direct and indirect objects, the general rule is that if the person or thing is preceded by the preposition à or pour, that person/thing is an indirect object. If it's not preceded by a preposition, it is a direct object. If it's preceded by any other preposition, it can't be replaced by an object pronoun. Like direct object pronouns, French indirect object pronouns are usually placed in front of the verb.

   I'm talking to him.
   Je lui parle.

   He buys books for them.
   Il leur achète des livres.

   I'm giving the bread to you.
   Je vous donne le pain.

   She wrote to me.
   Elle m'a écrit.

In English, an indirect object can be animate or inanimate. This is also true in French; however, an indirect object pronoun can replace the indirect object only when it is an animate noun: person or animal. When you have an indirect object that's not a person or animal, it can only be replaced with the adverbial pronoun y. So, "pay attention to him" would be fais attention à lui, but "pay attention to it" (e.g., the program, my explanation) would be fais-y attention.

With most verbs and in most tenses and moods, when the indirect object pronoun is first or second person, it has to precede the verb:

   He's talking to me = Il me parle, not "Il parle à moi"

When the pronoun refers to the third person, you can use a stressed pronoun after the verb and the preposition à in order to stress the distinction between masculine and feminine:

   I'm talking to her = Je lui parle, à elle

However, with some verbs, the indirect object pronoun has to follow the verb—see verbs that don't allow a preceding indirect object pronoun. The imperative has different rules for word order.

In French, à plus a person can usually be replaced by an indirect object pronoun:

   J'ai donné le livre à mon frère - Je lui ai donné le livre.
   I gave the book to my brother - I gave him the book.

   Il parle à toi et à moi - Il nous parle.
   He's talking to you and me - He's talking to us.

However, a few French verbs and expressions* do not allow a preceding indirect object pronoun, and what to use instead depends on whether the indirect object pronoun is a person or a thing.

When the Indirect Object Pronoun Is a Person

When the indirect object is a person, you must keep the preposition à after the verb, and follow it with a stressed pronoun:

   Je pense à mes sœurs - Je pense à elles.
   I'm thinking about my sisters - I'm thinking about them.

 Wrong: xx Je leur pense xx

   Il doit s'habituer à moi. (no change)
   He has to get used to me.

Wrong: xx Il doit m'habituer.

   Fais attention à ton prof - Fais attention à lui.
   Pay attention to your teacher - Pay attention to him.

 Wrong: xx Fais-lui attention xx

It is also possible, though rare, to replace the person with the adverbial pronoun y:

   Je pense à mes sœurs - J'y pense.
   Il doit s'habituer à moi. - Il doit s'y habituer.
   Fais attention à ton prof - Fais-y attention.

When the Indirect Object Pronoun Is a Person

When the indirect object is a thing, you have two equally acceptable choices: You can either keep the preposition à as above but follow it with an indefinite demonstrative pronoun, or you can replace the preposition and indirect object with y:

Je songe à notre jour de mariage - Je songe à cela, J'y songe.

I'm dreaming about our wedding day - I'm dreaming about it.

   Wrong: xx Je lui songe xx

   Fais attention à la leçon - Fais attention à cela, Fais-y attention.
   Pay attention to the lesson - Pay attention to it.

 Wrong: xx Fais-lui attention xx

   Il faut penser à tes responsabilités - Il faut penser à cela, Il faut y penser.
   Think about your responsibilities - Think about them.

Wrong: xx Il faut lui penser xx

*French Verbs and Expressions That Don't Allow a Preceding Indirect Object Pronoun

en appeler à to appeal to, address
avoir affaire à to have to deal with
avoir recours à to have recourse to
croire à to believe in
être à to belong to
faire allusion à to allude to
faire appel à to appeal to, address
faire attention à to pay attention to
s'habituer à to get used to
penser à to think of, about
recourir à to have recourse to
renoncer à to give up, renounce
revenir à to come back to
rêver à to dream of
songer à to think, dream of
tenir à to be fond of, care about
venir à to come to