French Grammar For Dummies
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In order to put a verb in motion, you need to know who performs the action: the subject. French has nine possible subjects. Here is the list of French subject pronouns with their English equivalents.

  • je (j’ before a vowel) (I)

  • tu (you [singular informal])

  • il (he or it)

  • elle (she or it)

  • on (one)

  • nous (we)

  • vous (you [singular formal or plural informal and formal])

  • ils (they [masculine])

  • elles (they [feminine])

The French pronoun je

Je means I. In front of a vowel, je becomes j’. It is the only subject pronoun that gets elided (that is, the -e gets dropped before a vowel or a mute -h), as the following examples illustrate.

J’aime les bonbons. (I like candy.)
J’ai un chat. (I have a cat.)

The French pronoun tu

Tu expresses you in familiar speech, when you’re addressing a single person you know well, such as a family member, a classmate, or a child. Don’t say tu to a person you’ve never met before, to someone you should show respect to, or to a business relation such as a doctor or a clerk in a store. (When talking to one unfamiliar person or a group of people, you use vous, the formal/plural you.)

The French pronouns il, elle, and on

Il means he or it and can refer to a masculine person or a masculine thing like un livre (a book). As a matter of fact, you have to use il when talking about a masculine thing, as in this example:

Où est ton livre? Il est sur mon bureau. (Where is your book? It is on my desk.)

Il can also express an impersonal subject. It’s used in phrases that only exist in an impersonal mode, such as il faut (it’s necessary), il fait beau (the weather is nice), il pleut (it’s raining), il est midi (it is noon), and all expressions about time and weather.

Unlike English, the il form of a French verb never ends in -s. Depending on the conjugation group, the -s is for je and tu.

The pronoun elle can refer to a feminine person or a feminine thing, like une maison (a house). Use elle when talking about a feminine thing, as in this example:

Regarde cette maison! Elle est vraiment belle. (Look at this house. It’s really beautiful.)

The pronoun on has a few different uses.

  • It can mean one/someone, as in Écoute! On ouvre la porte! (Listen! Someone is opening the door!)

  • It is also used to speak about people in general, as in On ne se parle plus; on envoie des textos. (People don’t talk any more; they text.)

  • Finally, it is the informal equivalent of nous (we), as in On se voit demain. (We see each other tomorrow.) Even when on means we (a plural subject), the verb is conjugated as a third person singular. Only the context reveals which on you’re dealing with.

On is not the equivalent of the English it to refer to a thing. In fact, on never refers to a thing.

The French pronoun nous

Nous means we. When you use nous, you’re including yourself in the group. All verb endings triggered by the subject nous end in -ons in all tenses, except être (to be) in present, which is conjugated as nous sommes. Here are some examples: nous aimons (we like), nous finissons (we finish), and nous avons (we have).

The French pronoun vous

The pronoun vous expresses the singular formal you and also the plural for you, both formal and informal. A group of children or several family members would be addressed as vous, but so would a group of professors. Even when it expresses a singular formal you, vous still commands a plural verb form and it always ends in -ez, except for the verbs dire (to tell), faire (to do, to make), and être (to be).

The French pronouns ils and elles

Ils is the plural equivalent of il singular. It means they, when they refers to all masculine subjects, or a mix of feminine and masculine subjects. A group of mostly feminine subjects and one masculine subject is described with ils:

Ton fils et tes trois filles, comment vont-ils? (Your son and three daughters, how are they doing?)

Elles is the plural equivalent of elle singular. It means they, only when they are all feminine, as when talking about a group of female students: Elles sont intelligentes. (They are smart.)

All ils/elles forms in the present tense end in -ent, with the exception of être (to be), avoir (to have), aller (to go), and faire (to do, to make). Those exceptions end in -ont.

About This Article

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Véronique Mazet has a doctorate in French from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of two successful grammar books. She currently teaches French at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas.

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