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French subject pronouns: Everything you need to know

Celine Segueg

French subject pronouns are the most common French pronouns. Simply put, they are the French pronouns that can be used to replace the subject of a sentence. They tell us who or what is performing the action of a verb. In French, they’re known as les pronoms personnels sujets.

The French subject pronouns are: je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, and elles. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how and when to use these French pronouns.

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French subject pronouns: The basics

Just like in English, we use French subject pronouns in place of the subject of a sentence. The subject can be a person, place, or thing. Let’s start with a few examples to see this in action, where the subjects in the first sentences are replaced by subject pronouns in the second sentences:

  • My sister is not at home. She is at the supermarket. – Ma sœur n’est pas à la maison. Elle est au supermarché.
  • The park is very large. It is nearly three square kilometers. – Le parc est très grand. Il fait presque trois kilomètres carrés.
  • These shirts are too expensive. They cost more than 40 euros. Ces chemises sont trop chères. Elles coûtent plus de 40 euros.

Verbs are conjugated to match the subject, so conjugation tables often use the subject pronouns to identify each of a verb’s conjugations. You’ll see them regularly in our other lessons, such as our detailed post on French verb conjugation.

Here’s a table of the subject pronouns in English:

Singular Plural
I we
you you
he, she, it they

 

Now here’s the equivalent table in French, corresponding to verb conjugation tables. This is simplifying things a bit though, so read on for all the details.

Singulier Pluriel
je nous
tu vous
il, elle ils, elles

Grammatical persons

We’ll break our lesson on subject pronouns down by grammatical person. This important grammatical concept is very common when learning a language, so we’ll take a moment here to explain what we mean by first-, second-, and third-person subjects:

  • The first person is when the subject includes the speaker (I, we)
  • The second person is when the listener or person spoken to is the subject (you)
  • The third person is when the subject is being spoken about (he, she, it, they)

In addition to the grammatical person, we also differentiate between our subjects based on number and gender:

  • Number – Subjects are either singular or plural
  • Gender – Subjects are either masculine or feminine

All the subject pronouns in French

Now that we’ve seen how we can refer to them, let’s see the full list of French subject pronouns. We’ll go into more detail on each of these in the following sections.

Grammatical person Subject pronouns, English Subject pronouns, French
first-person singular I je, j’
second-person singular informal you (singular, informal) tu
second-person singular formal you (singular, formal) vous
third-person singular masculine he il
third-person singular feminine she elle
third-person singular impersonal, first-person plural informal one, we on
first-person plural we nous
second-person plural you (plural) vous
third-person plural masculine they (masculine) ils
third-person plural feminine they (feminine) elles

First-person singular: I in French

When speaking in the first person in English you use the pronoun I in singular. The French equivalent is je.

  • I want to learn French. – Je veux apprendre le français.
  • I don’t like Roquefort cheese. – Je n’aime pas le fromage Roquefort.

The subject pronoun je becomes contracted with verbs that start with a vowel. The letter e is dropped and replaced by an apostrophe, so I in French is frequently simply written as j’.

  • I like Monet’s works. – J’aime les œuvres de Monet.
  • I wait for the bus at five in the morning. – J’attends le bus à cinq heures du matin.

There is no differentiation in the subject pronoun between a masculine or a feminine speaker: we always use je. The gender of the speaker may still be reflected in the rest of the sentence, however, where adjectives change form to match the subject’s gender.

  • I often feel lonely. – Je me sens souvent seul. (masculine) – Je me sens souvent seule. (feminine)
  • Nonetheless, I am very happy. – Pourtant, je suis très heureux. (masculine) – Pourtant, je suis très heureuse. (feminine)

Note that contrary to the English norm of always capitalizing I, the French first-person singular subject pronoun je is only capitalized when it’s the first word in a sentence. Otherwise, je is written in lowercase like any other pronoun.

  • I believe that I need to be in Paris before noon, but I’m not sure if I have time to take a train in the morning. – Je crois que je dois être à Paris avant midi, mais je ne sais pas si j’ai le temps de prendre un train le matin.
  • Do I need to leave tonight, or tomorrow morning? – Est-ce que je dois partir ce soir, ou demain matin ?

First-person plural: We in French

Nous is the strict translation of the subject pronoun we in French, whereas on is also commonly used in spoken French. We’ll start with nous, and then explain the specifics of on.

First-person plural: Nous

Nous is the French subject pronoun for first-person plural. Nous has its own set of conjugations.

  • Paul and I like eating Italian food. We are eating lasagna tonight. – Paul et moi aimons manger la nourriture italienne. Nous mangeons de lasagne ce soir.
  • We are going to Martinique with three other couples this winter. – Nous partons en Martinique avec trois autres couples cet hiver.

Just like we saw above with je, nous does not change form to reflect the gender of the speakers, though other adjectives in the sentence still need to match.

  • I’ve known Charles and Romain for years. We are always happy to see each other. – Je connais Charles et Romain depuis des années. Nous sommes toujours heureux de se retrouver.
  • I know several other young moms in the neighborhood. We are always happy to run into each other in the park with our kids. – Je connais plusieurs autres jeunes mamans dans le quartier. Nous sommes toujours heureuses de se croiser au parc avec nos enfants.

First-person plural, informal spoken: On

On is a particularly tricky pronoun in French, since its formal use is as an impersonal third-person singular pronoun similar to the English pronoun one. We’ll explain that use further when we get into the third-person pronouns below, but we need to bring it up here because on is commonly used in spoken French as an informal replacement for we.

Although it’s used in the first-person plural, on always still takes the same the third-person singular conjugation as il and elle.

Using on as we is actually more common in spoken French than using nous:

  • What are we doing tonight? – Qu’est-ce qu’on fait ce soir ?
  • We’re going to the cinema! – On va au cinéma !
  • Do we need to reserve our tickets ahead of time? – Est-ce qu’on doit réserver nos billets à l’avance ?

On can also be used as we in a broad sense, implying that the speaker is somehow part of the group he or she is talking about:

  • The national team is the best in the world. We only lost during the final shootouts. – L’équipe nationale est la meilleure du monde. On a seulement perdu lors des tirs au but.
  • In France, we take our cuisine very seriously. – En France, on prend notre gastronomie très sérieusement.

The widespread use of on in French is often confusing for English speakers since there’s not really a straight equivalent. To get the hang of it, compare the examples in this section with the examples in the third-person singular section below. We can also recommend our dedicated post where we focus on the usage differences between on vs nous.

Second-person: You in French

When speaking in the second person, English has only one subject pronoun: you. In French, however, we have two different pronouns covering three different contexts: tu and vous for singular, and vous in plural. Let’s look at each of these three versions of you in French.

Second-person singular informal: Tu

This first version of you in French is used when addressing peers. Tu is known as the informal you, or the familiar you form. We use this singular pronoun to address an individual we know, or with whom we want to keep a friendly rapport.

  • Amélie, are you coming tonight? – Amélie, viens-tu ce soir ?
  • What do you think about my make-up? – Qu’est-ce que tu penses de mon maquillage ?
  • You look stunning! – Tu es ravissante !

Second-person singular formal: Vous

Vous is the formal you in French, considered the polite you form. It is used when speaking to elders, clients, or authority figures. When people meet for the first time, it’s common to address each other as vous before getting to know each other better and deciding to start using tu. (There are even verbs for the act of calling people by tu or vous: tutoyer and vouvoyer.) Vous is used less and less by today’s youth, but it still remains quite common in French society.

  • Mister Dupont, can you help me? – Monsieur Dupont, pouvez-vous m’aider ?
  • Ma’am, can you tell us where the subway is? – Madame, pouvez-vous nous indiquer où est le métro ?

Vous takes the same verb conjugation, regardless of whether it’s used as a formal singular you or a plural you.

Second-person plural you: Vous

When we address multiple people in French we use vous as the plural you. It doesn’t matter if we’re addressing men or women, elders or children, the plural you in French is always just vous.

  • Ahmad et Aicha, are you coming this weekend? – Ahmad et Aicha, venez-vous ce week-end ?
  • Good evening gentlemen, have you made your choices from among the desserts? – Bonsoir messieurs, vous avez faits vos choix parmi les desserts ?

Third-person singular: He, she, it in French

When speaking in the third-person singular in English, you have three main options for subject pronouns: he, she, and it. In French there are only two equivalents, since every noun has a gender: il is masculine and elle is feminine. These are used whether referring to people or objects. There is no neutral pronoun for it in French.

  • Jean-Luc is smart. He is studying astrophysics. – Jean-Luc est intelligent. Il étudie l’astrophysique.
  • Helen is dedicated. She is going to be a doctor. – Hélène est sérieuse. Elle va être médecin.
  • Take my bag. Watch out, it’s very heavy. – Prends mon sac. Attention, il est très lourd.
  • Is the cup half full, or is it half empty? – Est-ce que la tasse est à moitié pleine, ou est-ce qu’elle est à moitié vide ?

Impersonal third-person singular in French: On

On is a specific third-person singular French pronoun for referring to people in general. The formal equivalent in English is one, though English speakers often substitute they, we, you, or even someone or everyone in the same context.

On is used when we aren’t referring to anyone specific. It’s very common when asking questions. When to use on in French, and how you might translate it in English, is best explained with examples:

  • How does one get on the roof? – Comment on monte sur le toit ?
  • One can even die of hypothermia in the desert. – On peut même mourir d’hypothérmie dans le désert.
  • How do you become an influencer on Instagram? – Comment devient-on influenceuse sur Insta ?
  • You never know! – On ne sait jamais !
  • For the internet, did they already bill us this month? – Pour l’internet, est-ce qu’on nous a déjà facturé ce mois ?
  • Everyone is always hungry at the bakery. – On a toujours faim à la boulangerie.
  • Look at all the empty bottles! It looks like someone sure partied here last night! – Regardez toutes les bouteilles vides ! Il semble qu’on a bien fêté ici hier !
  • Do they constantly suffer from jet lag in space? – Est-ce qu’on souffre constamment de décalage horaire en espace ?
  • Mathilde, what do we say when someone gives you a present? – Mathilde, qu’est-ce qu’on dit quand quelqu’un te donne un cadeau ?

Remember that on is also frequently used as an equivalent to we in French, as we saw in the first-person plural section above. It still always takes the same third-person singular conjugation though! We cover this use in detail in our other post covering nous vs on.

Third-person plural: They in French

Whereas in English you just have one subject pronoun for they, in French we have one for each gender: ils is the masculine plural word for they, while elles is the feminine plural form. The third-person plural conjugation is the same for both pronouns.

  • Her cousins, Jacques and Arnaud, are so rich. They travel to Switzerland every summer. – Ses cousins, Jacques et Arnaud, sont tellement riches. Ils voyagent en Suisse chaque été.
  • Her cousins, Béatrice and Colette, are so lucky. They are visiting Paris this summer. – Ses cousines, Béatrice et Colette, sont tellement chanceuses. Elles visitent Paris cet été.

Like we saw above for il and elle, all nouns use gendered pronouns to reflect the gender of the words they replace. This same grammatical rule applies with these third-person plural pronouns:

  • Have you seen my gloves? They’re black. – As-tu vu mes gants ? Ils sont noirs.
  • The tables are dirty. They must be cleaned before the show. – Les tables sont sales. Elles doivent être nettoyées avant le spectacle.
  • I saw three marmots on the hike. They are so cute! – J’ai vu trois marmottes sur la randonnée. Elles sont tellement mignonnes !

So what do we do when a group is mixed with both males and females, or with masculine and feminine items? When a group is mixed, we use the masculine version of they: ils. You might say French is a patriarchal language, since even if there is just one man in a group of a hundred women, we still refer to them with ils.

  • Marc, Jennifer, and Heloise, they just arrived. – Marc, Jennifer, et Heloise, ils viennent d’arriver.
  • I saw a marmot and a fox near the stream. They were fighting. – J’ai vu une marmotte et un renard près du ruisseau. Ils se battaient.

Gender-neutral pronouns in French: Iel, iels

A lot of cultures are adapting to evolving notions of gender by integrating gender-neutral pronouns into the language. Just as in English where multiple options exist depending on each individual’s preference, there are also a few French gender-neutral pronouns coming into use, particularly on the internet.

The most common gender-neutral pronoun in French is iel, formed as a combination of il and elle. The plural is iels.

  • Carson can’t come over tonight, but ze is going to karaoke with us tomorrow. – Carson ne peut pas venir chez nous ce soir, mais iel va à karaoke avec nous demain.
  • When Maddie and Alix go on vacation, they always take their cat. – Quand Maddie et Alix partent en vacances, iels emmènent toujours leur chat.

Conclusion

French subject pronouns are used in the same way as English subject pronouns: they replace and act as the subject of the sentence. They can be singular or plural, and masculine or feminine. Let’s do a quick recap!

Je and nous are the singular and plural subject pronouns used in the first person, equivalent to I and we.

Tu and vous, the singular and plural versions of you, are used in the second person. Vous is also used in singular to be formal, with the same conjugation as the plural.

Il, elle, ils, elles, and on are used in the third person. Because all nouns in French have a certain gender, even inanimate objects, the French pronouns for he and she can also mean it. Likewise, there are two versions of they in French: the masculine ils and the feminine elles.

On is used in the third person as an impersonal pronoun equivalent to one in English. On is unique in that it’s often also used in spoken French in first-person plural as a replacement for nous. Even when used like this as we in French, it still always takes the third-person conjugations.

Gender-neutral pronouns such as iel or iels are starting to emerge in French, just as they are in English.

That’s all for now! We hope you found this detailed introduction to French subject pronouns useful, and enjoyed the explanations and examples on how they’re used.

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