Introduction on French Subject Pronouns

French Subject Pronouns
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To replace a noun, French uses a word called “a pronoun”. You choose this pronoun according to both the grammatical value of the word it replaces and the meaning of the word it replaces.

Anne est au marché. Elle est avec Mary.
Anne is at the market. She is with Mary 

To replace “Anne” in the second sentence, I used “elle” (she). “Elle” is a subject pronoun: it replaces a noun subject of the verb, and it's a third person singular to match "Anne" which is a person about whom I am speaking, feminine, one person, so "she".

What is a Subject?

The subject is the person or thing that does the action of the verb. 

How do you Find the Subject of a Sentence in French?

There is an easy way to find the subject of a sentence, and it's important in French you learn this "grammatical question" in order to be able to find the subject of a verb without any doubt.

First, find the verb.

Then ask: “who + verb” or “what + verb”. The answer to that question will be your subject.

A subject is a noun (Camille, flower, room...) or a pronoun (I, you, they...).

It can be a person, a thing, a place, an idea... 

Examples: 
I paint.
Who paints?
Answer: I paint. “I” is the subject.

Camille is teaching French.
Who is teaching?
Answer: Camille is teaching.
“Camille” is the subject. 

What is happening to Camille?
What’s happening?
Answer: What is happening.
“What” is the subject (This one was trickier, wasn’t it?) 

French Subject Pronouns Replacing One Person

In French, the list of singular subject pronouns is:

  1. Je (or j’ + vowel or h, it's called an elision) = I
      
  2. Tu (never t’) = you singular informal 
     
  3. Il = it, he - long “ee” sound
  4. Elle = it, she - short clip “L” sound
     
  5. On - this one is more difficult to understand. It used to mean “ one “, but nowadays is used in casual French to say “ we , instead of the now more formal/written form “ nous “. So although it's listed as a singular pronoun, nowadays it's mostly used to replace several people, so for a plural. See my lesson on "on".
     
  1. Vous = you, one person, formal. Note that "vous" is also the pronoun we use for "you" plural, when you say "you" to talk to more than one person (yous guys :-) Traditionally, vous is listed as a plural subject pronoun, although it can and does often refer to only one person. It's confusing, I know, so I wrote a whole lesson on "tu" versus "vous".

​French Subject Pronouns Replacing Several People

In French, the list of plural subject pronouns (replacing several people) is:

  1. Nous = we - S is silent, but becomes Z when followed by a vowel or an h. (Nowadays, “ nous “ is used in a formal context and in writing mostly. In conversation, we tend to use “on“).
     
  2. Vous = you plural, both formal and informal - S is silent, but becomes Z + vowel or an h.
     
  3. Ils = they masculine or they masculine and feminine - S is silent, but becomes Z + vowel or an h.
     
  4. Elles = they feminine ONLY - S is silent, but becomes Z + vowel or an h.

​Important : In Pronunciation Il = ils / elle = elles

“Il” and "ils" have the same pronunciation, sort of an English "eel", and “Elle” has the same pronunciation as it's plural form “Elles” sort of an English  "L" sound . Do not pronounce the S to remember the spelling; it would mess up your pronunciation!

Oh, and since I'm talking about pronunciation, you will soon see that most verbs will take an silent "ent" to match with "ils" and "elles" - I'm not explaining the whole French conjugation concept here yet, just planting a seed: this "ent" matching "ils" and "elles" will always be silent. It's not pronounced "an", it's not pronounced at all. Never in a verb. It's a very bad, but very common mistake French student make.

No "it" Subject Pronoun in French

There is no “it” form in French. Everything: objects, concepts, animals etc. are either masculine or feminine in French, and are therefore referred to as “il” or “elle”. So don't think of "il" and "elle" as being only "he" and "she", they also mean "it". It will be weird at first, but you will get used to it, I promise. 

What Do First, Second, Third Person Singular and Plural Mean?

This concept is often baffling to student of French, but it's a standard for grammatical jargon.

Subject pronouns are often referred to as "persons" and this is how most grammar books will present a French verb conjugation : a table, with 3 lines, and two columns. As an example, I will take the verb "chanter", to sing, in the present indicative tense.

SingularPlural
Je chanteNous chantons
Tu chantesVous chantez
Il, elle, on chanteIls, elles chantent

 

Je is often referred to as "the first person singular or 1ps", tu as "second person singular or 2ps"... can you guess nous? "1st person plural". Which makes "ils and elles" both "third person plural".

This presentation is super confusing if you ask me since "vous" for example could replace BOTH a singular or a plural... But it's very common to talk about verbs this way in French, and most French teachers are so accustom to it that they won't even understand that it's weird... 

French Subject Pronouns in Detail

So now that you get an overview of the singular French subject pronouns, let's look at them individually. There is a lot to be said on each.

  1. Singular French Subject Pronouns Je Tu Il Elle (what about moi, me, mon...?)
  2. Plural French Subject Pronouns Nous, Vous, Ils, Elles (please don't say the s)
  3. The Misunderstood French Subject Pronoun "on".

Finally, before you can go ahead and start conjugating your French verbs, I will encourage you to learn more about Tu versus Vous - A French Dilemma

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Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "Introduction on French Subject Pronouns." ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2016, thoughtco.com/introduction-french-subject-pronouns-3572146. Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. (2016, February 4). Introduction on French Subject Pronouns. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/introduction-french-subject-pronouns-3572146 Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "Introduction on French Subject Pronouns." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/introduction-french-subject-pronouns-3572146 (accessed November 22, 2017).