Apprendre la langue Française (Part Quinze) – les pronoms subjet


Source: Berlitz French Grammar Handbook

I have already posted a brief note about french pronouns here but this time, let’s check out subject pronouns.

We are all aware that pronouns mean “in place of a noun,” as a way to avoid repetition. All pronouns in French:

  • take their gender (masculine/feminine) and their number (singular/plural) from the noun they refer to; and
  • take their form from their function in the sentence.

Now, personal pronouns simply replace nouns without adding further information. They may refer to the person(s) speaking (first person), the person(s) spoken to (second person), or the person(s) or thing(s) spoken about (third person).

The subject pronouns are:

Singular Plural
First person je (I) nous (we)
Second person tu (you) vous (you)
Third person il (he, it), elle (she, it) ils, elles (they)

Note that Je becomes j’ before a vowel or mute h. For example:

J’habite Douai, j’ai un appartement dans le centre.
I live in Douai. I have an apartment in the town center.

Vous vis-à-vis Tu:
Tu is used when addressing family, close friends, and children, and is a mark of closeness or familiarity. Young people, especially students, increasingly use tu to their peers, whether or not they are in the familiar category.

In other situations, particularly with other acquaintances, strangers, or people who ought to be treated with politeness, vous is generally used. For example:

Tu n’as pas froid, Christine?
Vous n’avez pas froid, madame?
You’re not cold, are you, Christine?
You’re not cold, are you, Madame?

Tu can be used deliberately as a sign of contempt, in situations where normally vous would be expected.

Tu can only be used in singular form, while vous can be singular or plural. For example:

Vous n’avez pas froid, mes enfants?
Vous n’avez pas froid, mesdames?
You’re not cold, are you, children?
You’re not cold, are you, ladies?

Ils vis-à-vis Elles:
Ils is used when referring to masculine nouns in the plural, or to a mixture of masculine and feminine nouns. Elles is used to refer to feminine nouns in the plural. For example:

As-tu vu Brigitte et Paul? Oui, ils sont partis à la piscine.
Have you seen Brigitte and Paul? Yes, they have gone off to the swimming pool.
Mais ils ont oublié leurs serviettes. Elles sont là sur la table.
But they‘ve (referring to Brigitte and Paul) forgotten their towels. They (referring to the towels) are here on the table.

The indefinite pronoun, On:
The subject pronoun on is known as an indefinite pronoun since it is frequently used to make statements about no one in particular.

On peut très facilement faire ce genre d’erreur.
One can very easily make this sort of mistake.

Note that you must not confuse on with un/une to be used as a number. For example:

Un de mes enfants me l’a dit.
One of my children told me.

In French, on is much more widely used than “one” in English. Often, it has no direct correspondence in English, as in these instances:

1. Where a passive form would normally be used in English, by making an indirect object become the subject of a passive construction. This is not possible in French, which therefore uses on as a way of avoiding specifying who did the action. For example:

On m’a recommandé un noveau restaurant japonais.
A new restaurant has been recommended to me.

2. In speech, where it is very commonly used to replace nous. When on is used instead of nous, it is common (though not obligatory) for agreements to be made to match the implied nous. For example:

Alors, ce soir, on va restaurant ou on reste à la maison?
So are we going out to the restaurant this evening, or staying at home?

On est bête, toi et moi, d’avoir peur de manger des choses exotiques.
It is foolish of us to be scared of eating anything exotic.

3. Instead of ils, to convey a generalized “they” (généralité). For example:

On dit que les Japonais mangent plus sainement que nous.
They say the Japanese eat more healthily than we do.

4. Quelqu’un (someone) and n’importe qui (anyone at all) are also used as indefinite forms. For example:

Quelqu’un a sonné il y a cinq minutes.
Someone rang the doorbell five minutes ago.
N’importe qui peut pénétrer dans la maison si tu ne fermes pas la porte.
Anyone can get into the house if you don’t close the door.

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