French Subject Pronouns (Pronoms sujets)

01
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Introduction to French Subject Pronouns

Car ignition
"La voiture ne veut pas démarrer."(The car won't start.). Reg Charity / Getty Images

Lesson | Quiz

The subject of a verb is the person or thing which performs the action of that verb:

   Tom travaille.
   Tom is working.

   Mes parents habitent en Espagne.
   My parents live in Spain.

   La voiture ne veut pas démarrer.
   The car won't start.

Subject pronouns replace this person or thing:

   Il travaille.
   He is working.

   Ils habitent en Espagne.
   They live in Spain.

   Elle ne veut pas démarrer.
   It won't start.

When studying French, you must understand subject pronouns before you can begin learning how to conjugate verbs, because the forms of verbs change for each subject pronoun.

Click below for detailed information about how to use each French subject pronoun:

Singular

   1st person   je   I
   2nd person   tu   you
   3rd person   il   he, it    elle   she, it    on   one

Plural

   1st person   nous   we
   2nd person   vous   you
   3rd person   ils   they (m)    elles   they (f)

02
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French subject pronoun: je = I

The first person singular French subject pronoun je (listen) is used a lot like its English equivalent "I":

   Je travaille tous les jours.
   I work every day.

   Je veux voir ce film.
   I want to see this movie.

   Je sais ce qui s'est passé.
   I know what happened.​

Notes

1. Unlike "I," je is only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.

   Hier, je suis allé à la plage.
   Yesterday, I went to the beach.

   Non, je ne veux pas voir ce film.
   No, I don't want to see this movie.

   Dois-je commencer maintenant ?
   Do I have to start now?

2. Je must contract to j' when followed by a vowel or mute h.

   J'aime danser.
   I like to dance.

   Tu sais, j'ai le même problème.
   You know, I have the same problem.

   Oui, j'habite en France.
   Yes, I live in France.

03
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French subject pronouns: tu, vous = you

Lesson | Quiz on tu vs vous

In English, the second person subject pronoun is always "you," no matter how many people you're talking to, and regardless of whether you know them. But French has two different words for "you": tu (listen) and vous (listen).

The difference in meaning between these two words is very important* - you must understand when and why to use each of them. Otherwise, you may inadvertently insult someone by using the wrong "you."

Tu is the familiar "you," which demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. Use tu when speaking to one

  • friend
  • peer / colleague
  • relative
  • child
  • pet

Vous is the formal "you." It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality with someone. Use vous when speaking to

  • someone you don't know well
  • an older person
  • an authority figure
  • anyone to whom you wish to show respect

Vous is also the plural "you" - you have to use it when talking to more than one person, no matter how close you are.

Summary

  • familiar and singular: tu
  • familiar and plural: vous
  • formal and singular: vous
  • formal and plural: vous

Because the tu / vous distinction doesn't exist in English, beginning French students often have trouble with it. Some people follow the guideline of using whatever the other person uses with them. This can be misleading: someone in authority may use tu with you, but that certainly doesn't mean that you can respond in kind. You can try asking On peut se tutoyer ?, but when in doubt, I tend to use vous. I'd rather show someone too much respect than not enough!

*There are even verbs to indicate which pronoun you're using:
   tutoyer = to use tu
   vouvoyer = to use vous

Quiz on tu vs vous

04
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French subject pronouns: il, elle = he, she, it

The French third person singular subject pronouns il (listen) and elle (listen) are used just like their English equivalents "he" and "she" when talking about people:

   Il aime skier.
   He likes to ski.

   Elle veut être médecin.
   She wants to be a doctor.

In addition, both il and elle can also mean "it." In French, all nouns are either masculine or feminine, so to replace them, you use the subject pronouns corresponding to that gender.

   Je vais au musée - il est ouvert jusqu'à 20h00.
   I'm going to the museum - it's open until 8pm.

   Où est la voiture ? Elle est chez Jean.
   Where's the car? It's at Jean's place.

Summary

  • Il can refer to a male, "he," as well a masculine noun, "it."
  • Elle can indicate a female, "she," or a feminine noun, "it." 

Also see ils / elles

05
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French subject pronoun: on = one, we, you, they

On (listen) is the indefinite pronoun and literally means "one." It's often equivalent to the English passive voice.

   On ne devrait pas poser cette question.
   One shouldn't ask that question.

   On demande : caissier.
   Cashier wanted.

   On ne dit pas ça.
   That isn't said.

   Ici on parle français.
   French is spoken here.

In addition, on is an informal replacement for "we," "you," "they," "someone," or "people in general."

   On va sortir ce soir.
   We're going out tonight.

   Alors les enfants, que veut-on faire ?
   OK kids, what do you want to do?

   On dit que ce resto est bon.
   They say that this restaurant is good.

   On a trouvé mon portefeuille.
   Someone found my wallet.

   On est fou !
   People are crazy!

   On ne sait jamais
   You never know

Agreement with on

There are two related debates about whether agreement is required with the subject implied by on:

Adjectives: In On est content (We/They are / Someone is happy), should the adjective agree?
   feminine: On est contente.
   plural: On est contents.
   feminine plural: On est contentes.
Être verbs: In On est tombé (We/They/Someone fell), should the past participle agree?
   feminine: On est tombée.
   plural: On est tombés.
   feminine plural: On est tombées.

There is no real consensus, so here's my opinion: On is a neuter singular pronoun, so there shouldn't be agreement, but it's pretty much up to you - or your French teacher. ;-)

Quiz on

Related lesson: On vs l'on

06
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French subject pronoun: nous = we

The first person plural French subject pronoun nous (listen) is used exactly like "we" in English.

   Nous allons en Égypte.
   We're going to Egypt.

   J'espère que nous arriverons à temps.
   I hope we arrive in time.

   Devons-nous travailler ensemble ?
   Do we have to work together?

   Quand pouvons-nous commencer ?
   When can we begin?

In informal spoken French, on is used in place of nous.

07
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French subject pronouns: ils, elles = they

French has two third person plural subject pronouns, ils (listen) and elles (listen), and they both mean "they."

Ils is used for groups of men as well as mixed-gender groups.

   Je ne vois pas mes frères. Sont-ils déjà partis ?
   I don't see my brothers. Did they already leave?

   Paul et Anne viennent, mais ils sont en retard.
   Paul and Anne are coming, but they're running late.

Ils is also used for groups of all masculine nouns and groups of mixed masculine-feminine nouns.

   J'ai trouvé tes livres - ils sont sur la table.
   I found your books - they're on the table.

   Le stylo et la plume ? Ils sont tombés par terre.
   The pen and pencil? They fell on the floor.

Elles can be used only when every single person or thing you're referring to is female or feminine.

   Où sont Annette et Marie ? Elles arrivent.
   Where are Annette and Marie? They're on their way.

   J'ai acheté des pommes - elles sont dans la cuisine.
   I bought some apples - they're in the kitchen.

Notes

  • Even when talking about a room full of a hundred women and one man, you have to use ils.
  • Ils and elles are pronounced exactly like il and elle, respectively, except in a liaison.

 
Also see il / elle