Five Steps To Mastering The Grammar Of French Object Pronouns – Part 2

La musique qui me fait du bien

La musique qui me fait du bien

In Part 1 of this post, we covered the first step of our five-step approach to the French object pronoun system. Here is an example from the billboard advertising of a radio station with a word for word translation followed by a more natural translation:

La musique qui me fait du bien.
The music who me does of good.
Music that makes me feel good.

Pretty simple, isn’t it? That sentence, by the way, is an entire lesson in French grammar in itself.
If it’s so simple, where are the problems? This is the next step.

Step 2: Pay special attention to the problem areas of French object pronouns

There are a few areas where things can go wrong. The good thing is that nearly all the problems are with the third person object pronouns. Let’s look at these pitfalls or things to watch out for.

Pitfall 1: Watch out for pronoun gender: le ou la

You know that all nouns in French have a grammatical gender, masculine or feminine. Since the pronoun replaces the noun, the pronoun will also have a gender. In the third person pronouns, the choice is between le and la for the singular direct object pronouns. Here are two examples:

Il regarde l’homme. – Il le regarde.
Je vois la femme. – Je la vois.

All the other direct object pronoun forms do not make the distinction of gender in the spelling. The important thing here is to always keep track of the gender of the noun and articulate the le or la clearly instead of mumbling it as many people do because they are not sure of the gender.

While we are on this question of gender, there is another problem area that is important for written French and sometimes relevant for spoken French. When a pronoun is used before a verb in the passé composé form, the past participle should agree in number and gender with the pronoun. Here are some examples:

J’ai vu la femme – Je l’ai vue.
Elle a connu ces gens – Elle les a connus.
Tu a regardé les filles – Tu les a regardées.

Notice how we added an extra -e, -s and -es to the past participles of the verbs. Although the spelling of the past participles has changed, these participles sound exactly like their singular counterparts. Only a tiny number of past participles actually have a phonetic change – the most common examples are “fait” and “dit” that become “faits”, “faite” and “faites” and “dits”, “dite”, “dites” respectively. So, don’t worry too much about this rule when speaking French. Even native speakers often do not make the distinction.

Pitfall 2: using the wrong object pronoun le/la/l’, lui, les, leur

The biggest pitfall here is using the wrong pronoun because of misunderstanding the nature of the verb. To illustrate this, let’s look at two mistakes often made by learners and then the correct forms:

(1a) * Le projet lui intéresse – (1b) Le projet l’intéresse
– The project interests her.
(2a) * Je l’ai téléphoné – (2b) Je lui ai téléphoné – I phoned him.

In example (1a), the user mistakenly used the indirect pronoun lui instead of the direct l’. In example (2a), it was the opposite mistake; the verb téléphoner requires the indirect pronoun lui.

To determine if the verb requires the direct or the indirect pronoun, imagine that the verb is used with a complete noun instead of a pronoun. If the preposition à or a variation is used, then you have an indirect object. If no preposition is required, we have an direct object (except for the rare exception like servir). So, for example, one says: J’ai téléphoné à Pierre and Le projet intéresse Marie. Thus we can see that téléphoner requires the indirect object and intéresser requires the direct object.

You would think that this isn’t much of a problem because there are direct object verbs like voir, appeler, regarder, connaître, intéresser, etc. and indirect object verbs like dire, parler, plaire, ressembler, expliquer, etc. All you have to do is keep two lists in your head.

This is basically true, but the reality becomes murky because many verbs can use either the direct or the indirect object pronoun with a big difference in meaning. Here are two examples of the verb demander.

Elle demande le docteur Tremblay à l’accueil. – Elle le demande à l’acceuil.
– She asks for him at the reception.
Elle demande conseil au docteur Tremblay. – Elle lui demande conseil. – She asks him for advice.

To add to the complexity of the system and the risk of confusion, keep in mind that the system of object pronouns applies not only to humans and other living beings but to all things in general. Here are examples with dire (say) and laisser (leave).

Je dis la vérité au juge – Je la dis au juge.
Je dis la vérité au juge – Je lui dis la vérité.

Il laisse le message à sa femme. – Il le laisse à sa femme.
Il laisse le message à sa femme. – Il lui laisse le message.

As we can see, dire and laisser can take both direct and indirect object pronouns. It all depends on the meaning. When you study the examples, you see that the system is actually very logical and not especially difficult. I’ll mention in passing that even native speakers can have difficulty with verbs like servir, rendre and payer. Have a look at these in a good dictionary.

It does get a bit more complicated, however, because in French the indirect object pronoun is used to create compact sentences that render the general notion of “relative” to a person. Here are some examples.

On lui a préféré un candidat plus jeune.
– They preferred a younger candidate over him / He was passed over for a younger candidate.
Les gens lui ont tout volé.- The people stole everything she had.
Je ne lui veux pas de mal – I don’t wish him anything bad.
Sa fille lui fait la cuisine. Her daughter does the cooking for her.
Ça va leur faire plaisir. It will really make them happy.
On leur a suggéré d’attendre à demain. We suggested that they wait until tomorrow.

Pitfall 3: Combining object pronouns in the same sentence.

What happens when you put both kinds of pronouns in the same sentence? The rule is that the indirect object pronoun comes before direct object pronoun. Here are some examples where I’ve added possible direct object references:

Je vous l’envoie demain sans faute. (le chèque,) – I’ll send it to you tomorrow without fail.
Viens, je vais vous le présenter. (ce charmant garçon.) – Come, I’ll introduce him to you.
Tu nous les as cachés. (ces beaux livres-là.) – You hid them from us.

So far so good. The major complication here is that for the third person of the verb, the order of the object pronouns is reversed and the direct object pronoun precedes the indirect object pronoun. Here are some examples:

Je le lui ai envoyé la semaine passée. (le paquet) – I sent it to her last week
Elle va la leur montrer immédiatement. (la voiture) – She is going to show it to them right away.
On les lui pardonne. (ses erreurs.) – We forgive him his mistakes.

Note how the last example is a bit difficult to translate into English. I should add that these third person forms are rather rarely used because they sound a bit awkward.

Conclusion: incorporating object pronouns into your speech.

At this stage of the game, you have covered nearly all there is to learn about the direct and indirect object pronouns for most situations. We’ve seen how the system works and we’ve covered the major pitfalls. You shouldn’t have to think about grammar when you hear the following examples:

On les attend demain matin à 10 h.
(We’re expecting them tomorrow morning at 10 o.m.)
Nous pouvons vous aider. (We can help you.)
Est-ce qu’on vous a répondu ? (Have you been answerred.)
Je vais lui faire le message. (I’ll give him the message.)
La question ne m’intéresse pas du tout.
(The question is of no interest to me.)

As always, my suggestion is to memorize and repeat some model or template phrases that demonstrate the important patterns. You want to train your ear to hear the distinctions of meaning. Don’t think about the grammar. Good model phrases can be found in my Essential French 1 language calendar.

In Part 3 of this post, I want to look at some particular problems that arise when the French system clashes with the system of the learner’s first language. And then I want to have a quick look at some sophisticated uses that you might see or hear and eventually want to show off with.

Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at

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