TNs, U19: Pronouns 1(On, Direct Object Pronouns, En, Y, Relative Pronouns, Reflexive Se)


On is a versatile and ubiquitous French indefinite subject pronoun. Standing for an unidentified person, on is genderless, masculine by default and the verb is conjugated in third-person singular, which is why conjugation charts often list il/elle/on together.

On can be used for general statements, much like the English, formal “one”, or the general “you”.

  • On doit dormir assez. — One/You must sleep adequately.
  • On a toujours le choix. — You always have a choice.
  • On n’est jamais seul, ici. — One is/You are never alone here.

On is often used in active statements where English uses a passive construction.

  • On m'a envoyé des fleurs. — I was sent flowers.
  • On m'a dit que le magasin était ouvert. — I was told that the shop was open.

Yet, Francophones usually say on as a substitute for nous. In this use, on keeps its conjugations in third person singular, but its adjectives or past participles can be in the plural masculine or feminine, depending on whom the subject represents.

  • On mange toutes (feminine plural) nos légumes. — We all eat our vegetables.
  • On est partis (masculine plural) très tard. — We left very late.

Direct Object Pronouns

Direct objects are things or people that are directly acted upon by a verb. For instance, in the sentence "Ben threw the ball", the ball is the direct object. French has a set of pronouns that can be used to refer to a direct object.

English Direct Object
me me
you (sing.) te
him le
her la
us nous
you (plur. or formal sing.) vous
them les

Direct object pronouns usually come before their verbs.

  • L'enfant me voit. — The child sees me.
  • Le lion le mange. — The lion eats it (or "him"!).
  • Vous nous aimez. — You love us.
  • Je t'aime. — I love you.

Me/te/le/la elide, so make sure you notice them when they hide in the first syllable of a verb.

  • Elle m'attend. — She is waiting for me.
  • L'enfant l'appelle. — The child calls to him (or "her").

Le and les only contract when they're articles, not when they're object pronouns.

  • Je suis en train de le faire. (Not du faire) — I am in the process of doing it.

Note: “On” does not have a direct object form. As a consequence, L’enfant nous voit keeps the object pronoun “nous”, and On nous aime means “One loves us”.

For more information about direct objects see TNs, U21: Verbs Present: 2.

En Replaces De + Noun

The adverbial pronoun en can be used to replace objects introduced by de. For instance, it can replace a partitive article + noun.

  • Avez-vous de l'argent ? — Do you have some money?
  • Oui, j'en ai. — Yes, I have some.

En may replace nouns or pronouns in verb constructions that use de.

  • Rêvez-vous souvent de votre avenir ? — Do you often dream about your future?
  • Oui, j'en rêve souvent. — Yes, I dream about it often.
  • Marc parle de Peter ? — Is Marc talking about Peter?
  • Oui, il en parle. or Oui, il parle de lui. — Yes, he's talking about him.
    -Note: It is more correct to say il parle de lui but in current usage it is common to hear en replacing a person.

Nouns in adverbs of quantity or numbers can also be replaced with en.

  • Achetez-vous beaucoup de livres ? — Are you buying a lot of books?
  • Oui, j'en achète beaucoup. — Yes, I am buying a lot [of them].
  • Non, j’en achète un. — No, I am buying one [of them].

Notice that en always precedes the verb, but adverbs stay in place after the verb.

Y Can Refer to a Place or a preceding indirect object.

The adverbial pronoun y can refer to a previously mentioned or implied place, in which case it's usually translated as "there".

  • Allez-vous au restaurant ? — Are you going to the restaurant?
  • Oui, j'y vais. — Yes, I'm going there.

In English, "there" may be omitted, but the same is not true of y in French. Je vais is not a complete sentence without y. The verb aller must be followed by a location or y.

Y can also replace the indirect object of a verb using à.

  • Pensez-vous aux conséquences ? — Are you thinking about consequences?
  • Oui, j’y pense. — Yes, I am (thinking about them).

The Relative Pronouns Que and Qui

As mentioned in “Interrogative Pronouns”, qui and que can be very confusing because they can be interrogative or relative pronouns.

In a nutshell:

  • As interrogative pronouns, qui ? means “who?” and que ? means “what?”.
  • As relative pronouns, qui is a subject (people or things) and que is a direct object (people or things) of the following verb.

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, which are subordinate clauses that elaborate upon a previously mentioned noun or pronoun (the antecedent). Use que when the relative pronoun is the object ("whom", “which” or “that” in English) and use qui when it's the subject ("who", “which” or “that” in English).

  • C'est l'homme que je connais. — He's the man whom (or "that") I know.
  • Je connais les livres que vous lisez. — I know the books that you are reading.
  • Ce sont les oiseaux que je préfère. — These are the birds which I prefer.
  • La fille qui lit un menu. — The girl who (or "that") reads a menu.
  • Le chapeau qui est ici semble doux. — The hat which (or “that”) is here looks soft.
  • Je regarde les gens qui dansent. — I’m looking at people dancing (lit. “the people who are dancing”).

If you have trouble figuring out whether to use qui or que, try rephrasing the sentence without the relative pronoun. Use qui if the antecedent is the subject; otherwise, use que. You can also remember that as a relative pronoun, qui is followed by a verb, whereas que is followed by a noun or pronoun.

  • Subject: La fille qui lit un menu.La fille lit un menu.
  • Object: C'est l'homme que je connais.Je connais l'homme.

In questions, after qui est-ce (lit. “who is it”) or qu’est-ce (lit. “what is it”), the relative pronouns qui and *que” can be used to introduce a relative clause.

  • Qu'est-ce que c'est ? — What is it? (question with être; lit. “what is it that it is?”)
  • Qui est-ce que tu appelles ? — Whom are you calling? (que is the object of appelles; lit. “who is it that you are calling?”)
  • Qui est-ce qui parle ? — Who's speaking? (qui is the subject of parle; lit. “who is it that is speaking?”)
  • Qu'est-ce qui se passe ? — What is going on? (qui is the subject of se passe; lit “what is it that is going on?”)

The Reflexive Pronoun Se

A reflexive pronoun like se can be used to indicate that a verb acts upon the subject. Se is used with all third-person subjects, regardless of gender and number.

  • Il s'aime. — He loves himself.
  • Il s'appelle comment ? — What's his name? (Lit, "He calls himself what?")
  • Elle se demande pourquoi. — She wonders why. (Lit, "She asks herself why.")
  • Les garçons se lèvent tôt. — The boys get up early.

When se refers to a plural subject, it can also be reciprocal or mutual ("each other").

  • Ils s'aiment. — They love each other.
  • Les filles se parlent. — The girls speak to each other.
  • On se parle quand ? — When do we speak to each other?
  • On se voit bientôt. — We will see each other soon.

Certain pronouns can be added to the end of the sentence to differentiate between reflexive and reciprocal uses if necessary.

  • Ils s'aiment eux-mêmes. — They love themselves.
  • Elles s'aiment elles-mêmes. — They love themselves.
  • Ils s'aiment l'un l'autre. — They love each other.
  • Elles s'aiment les unes les autres. — They love one another.

Important: If you find any errors in the Tips and Notes, have questions related to the grammar points above, or would like to discuss the topic in depth, please feel free to comment below. We ask that you keep your comments on topic so that this post stays educational and everyone can benefit from them. Any spam or unrelated comments will be deleted.

For more Tips and Notes, click HERE

December 16, 2018


Question: In the section "On" it uses the phrase:

  • On mange toutes nos légumes.

I was wondering, what's the difference between "We all eat our vegetables" and "We eat all our vegetables"? Is it the same translation? Does it have different stresses on words, in pronunciation, to signify the difference?

January 14, 2019

With the masculine "légumes", it is relatively easy to distinguish:

  • "We all eat our vegetables" = "nous mangeons tous [tooS] nos légumes" or "nous mangeons toutes [tooT] nos légumes".
  • "We eat all our vegetables" = nous mangeons tous [too] nos légumes.

With another object in the feminine, it is tougher:

  • "We all eat our apples" = "Nous mangeons [tooS] nos pommes" or "Nous mangeons [tooT] nos pommes.
  • "We eat all our apples" = "Nous mangeons [touT] nos pommes.

In the latter case where both the subject and the object are in the femimine, you can disambiguate "We all eat our apples" as follows: "Nous toutes mangeons nos pommes".

January 15, 2019

Error: In the section "Direct Object Pronouns" it refers to U21: Verbs Present: 2 despite it being after this unit.

January 14, 2019

Fixed, thank you!
I've added a link for more information to U21 below the direct object examples.

January 15, 2019

Is there any difference in meaning (besides the gender) between the last two examples:

  • Ils s’aiment l’un l’autre ; And
  • Elles s’aiment les unes les autres ?

Is one just two and the other more? Thanks!

March 28, 2019
  • Ils s'aiment l'un l'autre: there are 2 individuals here (2 males or one male and one female)
  • Elles s'aiment les unes les autres: there are at least 3 individuals here, and all females.
March 28, 2019

Thank you! This is very helpful.

March 28, 2019
Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.