In French, we use subject pronouns to replace the subject of a sentence and stressed pronouns to refer to people in order to add emphasis.
Est-ce que tu aimes la glace ?
Do you love ice cream?
Oui, et toi ?
Yes, do you?
In the example above, you can see that French subject pronouns function much like the English subject pronouns “I,” “you,” “he,” etc. On the other hand, French stressed pronouns are not always used in the same ways as you’ll find them in English. Don’t worry! In this post, we’ll reveal all the rules of both subject pronouns and stressed pronouns. First, we’ll review the subject’s role in a sentence, and then we’ll tackle the nine French subject pronouns. Did you know that French has two forms of “we,” two forms of “you,” and, guess what, two forms of “they”? Once you’ve mastered these differences, you’ll learn the French stressed pronouns, as well as how and when to use them. Let’s dive in!
How to identify the subject and replace it with a French subject pronoun?
To identify the subject of a sentence and replace it with a subject pronoun, first remember that the subject is who or what is performing an action or is being described. Follow the steps below to locate the subject of a sentence and replace it with a subject pronoun:
Step 1: Ask yourself who or what is performing the action of the verb.
Charlotte prend le bus.
Charlotte is taking the bus.
Who is taking the bus? ⇒ Charlotte. Therefore, this is the subject of the verb prend.
Step 2: Use a subject pronoun to avoid repetition.
Charlotte prend le bus. Charlotte est en retard.
Charlotte is taking the bus. Charlotte is late.
In the sentences above, the second instance of “Charlotte” can be replaced by “she,” which is elle in French:
→ Charlotte prend le bus. Elle est en retard.
Charlotte is taking the bus. She is late.
If you’d like some more practice with identifying the subject of a sentence, check out these tips! Now, let’s review the French subject pronouns.
What are the French subject pronouns?
The French subject pronouns are je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, and, elles.
If you think of a pronoun as “pro + noun” (meaning “instead of noun”) you will remember that the pronoun replaces the noun! A noun can be a person, an animal, a place, or a thing. French nouns fall into two categories: feminine or masculine. This category is referred to as the gender of a noun in French. Pay attention to this to choose the correct subject pronoun.
Now that you are aware of the subject pronouns, let’s take a closer look at some of them.
How to use the subject pronoun ‘je’ in French?
The subject pronoun je is used for the first person singular to mean “I.” Je has a few particular rules:
- Je is capitalized only at the beginning of the sentence, unlike the English “I.”
- Je becomes j’ in front of a vowel or the letter h.
J’y vais.* I’m off.
How to use the French subject pronoun ‘on’?
There are five ways to use the subject pronoun on.
- To refer to people in general:
En France, on mange beaucoup de pain !
In France, people eat a lot of bread!
- To say “you,” meaning “one” or “everyone”:
On doit se brosser les dents deux fois par jour.
You must brush your teeth twice a day.
- To say someone:
On m’a dit que Mme Deleau a déménagé.
Someone told me / I was told that Mrs. Deleau has moved house.
- When referring to unknown people:
On va lui faire une piqûre.
He is going to be given an injection.
- To say “we”: let’s explore below ↴
How to choose between the French ‘on’ and ‘nous’?
To choose between on and nous, remember that you will use on 90 percent of the time. The English pronoun “we” has two possible translations in French. On is used in speaking and informal writing, and nous is used in formal speech and writing. If I sent my friends a text, I would type, “On va au ciné ?” (Shall we go to the cinema?). But the French president would say, “Nous devons rester unis” (We must stay united).
Did you know? On is conjugated as a third person singular in most tenses, although it often refers to a group of people. So, you would say, on mange to mean “we eat.”
But in compound tenses that use the auxiliary verb être (to be), an agreement between the French past participle and the subject in gender and number must take place. For example, in the following sentence, the past participle takes the plural mark –s:
Hier, on est allés à la patinoire.
Yesterday, we went to the ice rink.
So, we have two forms of “we,” because on is informal and nous is formal. Now, why do you think we have two forms of “you”?
How to use ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French?
Use tu (you) in informal situations and vous (you) in formal contexts:
- Use tu to address people informally: with your family, your friends, your colleagues, and with children. Children and young people use tu among themselves. Beware when random people in the street stop addressing you with tu, it’s seen as a sign of aging!
Marc, tu t’occupes d’organiser la réunion ? Marc, are you organizing the meeting?
Sound like a native! In informal speech, replace tu with t’ when the verb starts with a vowel:
T’as de la monnaie ?
Do you have any change?
T’es où ?
Where are you?
But remember not to use t’ with an aspirated h (see above).
- Use vous:
- to address people formally, e.g. to talk to someone with respect, like your teacher or your director, or to address a person you don’t know well, like your dentist or a shop assistant.
Bonjour madame, est-ce que vous vendez des piles ?
Good morning, madam, do you sell batteries?
- to talk to a group of people, regardless of if they are your friends or people you don’t know.
Jean et Nicolas, vous voulez un jus de fruit ?
Jean and Nicolas, would you like a fruit juice?
It is best to use vous when you meet an adult for the first time, because some people might get offended by too much familiarity. Your interlocutor will offer to switch to the informal tu by asking “On se tutoie ?” or “On peut se tutoyer ?” (Shall we use tu?)
If you’d like a little more information on how to say “you” in French, take a look at this handy resource.
So far, you’ve seen that on and tu are informal and nous and vous are formal. What do you think about ils and elles (they)?
How to use ‘il(s)’ and ‘elle(s)’ in French?
Use il(s) and elle(s) to say “he,” “she,” or “they.” Remember that nouns have a gender: masculine or feminine. Gender is the reason why we have two ways to say “they,” not formality! Here are the rules for using il, elle, ils, and elles:
*Did you know?
Iel is very much seen on social media, although it is not yet officially recognized as a pronoun by the Académie Française (the institute which standardizes the French language). There are other, less common, forms of spellings used for iel. You can see them in this article.
Now that we’ve covered the French subject pronouns, let’s move on to unpack the French stressed pronouns.
What are the French stressed pronouns?
The French stressed pronouns are moi, toi, lui, elle, nous, vous, eux, and elles. Stressed pronouns are used in French to refer to people and animals in order to add emphasis. There are specific instances in which a stressed pronoun will be required in French. For example, when I greet my English speaking friend with Bonjour, ça va ? (Hello, how is it going?), a reply I often hear is Oui, et tu ? The correct answer should be Oui, et toi ? (Yes, and you?). Here, toi is a stressed pronoun. Let’s find out about the other stressed pronouns and how and when to use them.
First, here are all of the French stressed pronouns, as well as their corresponding subject pronouns:
Stressed pronouns refer to people and animals only. You cannot use a stressed pronoun for an object, place, idea, etc.
Stressed pronouns can be used in the following contexts:
- Adding emphasis is the main reason why you will use a stressed pronoun in French.
Moi, je suis toujours à l’heure. (Me), I’m always on time.
However, in English, you would not say “me, I…”, but you would put emphasis on “I” with the tone of your voice.
Mais toi, tu es toujours en retard ! But (you), you are always late!
*Did you know?
Another name for stressed pronouns is “emphatic pronouns.” Emphatic → it emphasizes!
If you combine the stressed pronoun with -même, you’ll add even more emphasis.
J’ai fabriqué cette maquette moi-même !
I made this model myself!
- After et (and) is another use of stressed pronouns that is important to know.
Moi, ça va, et lui ?
Me, I’m fine, and him?
On a faim. Et eux ?
We’re hungry. And them?
- Stressed pronouns can also be used on their own, for example, when answering a question. How do you choose the correct pronoun? Think about who you want to describe and use the above table to help you. For example, if it is yourself, use moi (me). If it is a single man, use lui (him). Or if it is a group of women, use elles (them).
Qui veut une barbe à papa? Moi !
Who wants candy floss? Me!
Qui sonne à la porte ? Lui !
Who is ringing the doorbell? Him!
- After the common French phrase c’est (it is):
Coucou, c’est moi !
Hiya, it’s me!
- After être à, using stressed pronouns shows belonging.
Cette trottinette est à lui.
This scooter belongs to him.
C’est à moi de jouer !
It’s my turn to play!
- After all prepositions in French, such as pour (for), chez (at), avec (with), or sans (without).
Ce cadeau est pour nous ?
Is this present for us?
Clara vient chez vous à 17h.
Clara is coming to your place at 5pm.
Je joue aux jeux vidéos avec elles.
I’m playing video games with them.
Sans eux, je ne pourrais pas gagner.
Without them, I couldn’t win.
- Stressed pronouns are used with French comparison words, after que.
- moins…que (less…than):
Olivier est moins courageux qu’eux.
Oliver is less brave than them.
- plus…que (more…than):
Rose est plus petite que lui.
Rose is shorter than him.
- autant…que (as…as):
Ils sont aussi sportifs que nous.
They are as sporty as us.
- Use the stressed pronouns moi and toi in replacement of the object pronouns me and te in the French imperative mood.
Donne-moi ce journal !
Give me this newspaper!
Four ways to express agreement or disagreement with what someone said using stressed pronouns and the words aussi, non plus, pas, and si.
The same rule applies to all stressed pronouns. For instance, lui aussi (him as well), nous non plus (we neither), pas eux (not them).
Let’s review what we’ve learned!
When using French subject pronouns and stressed pronouns, remember these important points:
- Use the subject pronouns to avoid repeating the subject of the sentence.
- Je becomes j’ in front of vowels and the letter h, except for cases where there is an aspirated h..
- Use on when you speak, and keep nous for formal writing. If you speak to two people or more, or if you want to be polite and show respect to your elders, use vous (you) rather than tu (you).
- Use il(s) and elle(s) to refer to people, animals, and things.
- Use stressed pronouns in a variety of contexts. Most of the time, you will use them:
- to emphasize the person you are talking about
- to compare people
- when telling people what to do
- with prepositions like avec, sans or chez, and after c’est.
Want to practice? Now, you can try these exercises to practice French subject pronouns and stressed pronouns.
Pronouns are words that replace nouns:
John is a teacher. → He is a teacher.
The subject of a sentence is what/who does the action, is described, or is experiencing what the verb indicates. In general, the subject is what the sentence is about.
A stressed pronoun, sometimes called a pronom tonique, refers to people and animals only. They are often used to add emphasis, but they can also be used with comparisons, after words and phrases like et (and), c’est (it is), and certain prepositions, and with commands. They are words like moi (me), toi (you), lui (him/it), elle (her/it), nous (we), vous (you), eux (them), and elles (them).
Donnez-moi la recette, s’il vous plaît.
Give me the recipe, please.
Gender represents categories in which nouns are split. In French, these nouns are split into the categories of masculine and feminine.
Prepositions are words that come before nouns or pronouns and indicate how the noun or pronoun relates to another part of the clause (for example, expressing place or time).
John is in the house.
Mary left at 5:00.
A compound tense is a tense formed with an auxiliary verb and a past participle, for example, “I have studied.”
Auxiliary verbs, like “to be” or “to have,” in English, help to form tenses:
I am eating.
I have eaten.
It was broken by the boy.
Past participles are forms of a verb that accompany the auxiliary verb in compound tenses.