Subject pronouns are just what they sound like: they form the subject of the sentence. By “subject” we don’t mean just any thing or concept or person a sentence mentions, but the subject from a grammatical sense.

What are subjects in the structure of a sentence?

Subjects answer the question of who or what is doing the action of the sentence. Subjects are often at the very beginning of the sentence or close to it.

Examples with the subject of the sentence in bold:

Marianne went to Starbucks.

Mondays are awful.

When the phone rang, Marcus ignored it.

Here are the same sentences as above, only using subject pronouns instead of nouns:

She went to Starbucks.

They are awful.

When the phone rang, he ignored it.

Subject pronouns replace sentences like these in English with:

 Singular Plural
1st Person  I we
2nd Person you you
3rd Person he/she/it they

You’ll notice that “it” and “he” and “she” are all listed in the same category. This is because French doesn’t have an “it” that can just be dropped into any sentence to refer to anything that isn’t a person. All French nouns have a gender, which means the subject pronoun of a sentence is referred to as a he or a she, even if the subject of the sentence is not a person.

The equivalent pronouns in French:

 Singular Plural
1st Person je nous (and sometimes on)
2nd Person tu vous
3rd Person il/elle/on ils/elles

Differences in French and English pronouns

Many major differences in pronoun usage in French stem from the fact that you need to keep in mind whether objects or people are feminine or masculine, and whether they are singular or plural. Making the distinction mentally as you speak or write is a habit you will learn and will require much less effort on your part over time.

We discuss the other major differences in subject pronouns below.

The “yous”

You’ll notice a major difference when using the pronoun “you” in French versus English. There are two different kinds of “you” in French. When speaking or writing in French you will have to distinguish between when should you use one versus the other.

  • The singular you, tu, is used for close relationships and people of a lower status than you, such as children.
  • Vous is used for addressing more than one person. It is also used as the “respectful” option, such as with people you don’t know well and people of higher status than you.

The same distinction once existed in English, actually, which you may have noticed if you have read works in Middle English, such as the Canterbury Tales. “Thou” was once the familiar, singular version of “you”, while the word “you” was used for formal relationships or to address multiple people.

Je and tu

There are a couple of things you should note about je and tu: First, je is not capitalized, unlike the pronoun “I” in English.

Also, je is shortened to j’ when a word beginning with a vowel follows it. This contraction is called elision and is used often in French to prevent two vowel sounds from being heard in a row.

Example: j’arrivej’essaie

It would seem logical that you would do the same thing with tu, such as t’arrives, t’essaies. However, tu is never shortened in this way. (There is another word, the direct and indirect object pronoun te, that is shortened like that).

On

On translates a couple of different ways in English. It can mean “one” as an impersonal statement, such as “One should do this…”, “One should be aware…”

It can be used in place of nous, often for sentences with a clear action in them, such as on va, or on part, and often in cases where the exact members of the group of people are not precisely known.

Note that if you use on in a sentence, whether you’re using it to refer to a single person or a group, you always use the third person singular verb conjugation (the conjugation used for il and elle). It never gets the nous conjugation, even if you’re referring to a group.

Ils and Elles

Groups of people are referred to as ils, unless the group only has females, in which case they are elles. The same rule applies to groups of objects that all have the feminine gender. Mixed gender groups and all-male groups both get translated at ils, much in the same way that in the past and sometimes still now, using “he” and “him” in writing is supposed to refer to both men and women.

Overall, French and English have only slight differences in subject pronoun usage. Indirect and direct object pronouns differ a little more, but for the most part handling pronouns in French should be fairly straightforward.

If you’ve got this topic down, the natural next step would be to learn direct and indirect pronouns.

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