A guide to direct object pronouns in French

A guide to direct object pronouns in French

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated January 25, 2023

If you wish to up your game in French, then expanding your vocabulary is simply not enough. You also need to master grammar rules to express yourself correctly and with style. Such is the case with direct object pronouns, which often appear in conversations and in writing. 

Direct object pronouns are tools you can use to avoid repeating the same words over and over (a major faux pas in French!). In English, some common direct object pronouns include him, her, them and us. They’re pronouns designed to replace the nouns receiving the action in a sentence — and they work the same way in French. 

Below, find your comprehensive guide to direct object pronouns in French: what they are, how to use them and where to put them in a sentence. 

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How to define a direct object in French?

Before we give you a list of direct object pronouns in French, let’s talk about what a direct object is. A large number of verbs, called direct transitive verbs, exist to connect a subject that performs an action and an object that receives the action of the verb. For example, here’s a sentence that uses the -er verb aimer (to love) as a transitive verb:

Paul aime Caroline.

Paul loves Caroline.

In this example, Paul is the one who loves and Caroline is the one receiving the love. In French grammar terms, Caroline is the direct object of the verb because her name is directly connected to the verb, without any preposition standing in between. As such, direct objects are exclusively used with direct transitive verbs, which require no preposition.

By contrast, indirect transitive verbs are always constructed with a preposition:

Paul parle à Caroline.

Paul speaks to Caroline.

What are the direct object pronouns in French?

By definition, direct object pronouns are meant to replace direct object nouns, to avoid repetition when developing a topic or when answering questions. Here are a couple of examples of direct object pronouns in French:

Est-ce que tu connais Marc ?
Oui, je le connais bien.
Do you know Mark?
Yes, I know him well.
Je lis ce livre parce que mon professeur l’a recommandé.I’m reading this book because my teacher recommended it.

The table below gives you the list of all the direct object pronouns in French, while you can refer to this video for their pronunciation:

me (m’)me
te (t’)you (singular or informal form)
le (l’)him/it
la (l’)her/it
vousyou (plural or formal form)

As you can see, several direct object pronouns have an elided version, to be used when the following verb starts with a vowel or the letter h. It’s also worth noting that the pronouns le (him) and la (her) have the same elided form l’. Usually, the context avoids any risk of confusion:

Je trouve cette journaliste très intéressante. Je l’écoute tous les jours à la radio.

I find this [female] journalist very interesting. I listen to her every day on the radio.

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What’s the right order of French direct object pronouns?

As you may have already spotted, the position of the direct object pronoun is different in French and in English. But its position also depends on the tense of the verb.

Simple tenses

Simple tenses, like the present, the imperfect or the future tense, include only the verb, without the auxiliary avoir (to have) or être (to be). For these tenses, the direct object pronoun is placed directly before the verb:

Je t’appelle.I call you.
Je t’appelais.I was calling you.
Je t’appellerai.I will call you.

For the negative form, the direct object pronoun remains attached to the verb, with the two negative words ne and pas coming right before and after:

Je ne t’appelle pas.I don’t call you.
Je ne t’appelais pas.I wasn’t calling you.
Je ne t’appellerai pas.I won’t call you.

Compound tenses

As their name suggests, compound tenses are made of two elements: the auxiliary and the verb itself. With them, the direct object pronoun is placed before the auxiliary, as you can see in the case of the past tense of passé composé:

Je l’ai acheté.

I bought it.

As with simple tenses, the negative words don’t come in between the direct object pronoun and the auxiliary verb:

Je ne l’ai pas acheté.

I didn’t buy it.

With modal verbs

Verbs may also be used with modal verbs like pouvoir (can), vouloir (to want), devoir (must) or even aller (to go) in the case of the futur proche (near future). Contrary to compound tenses, in such cases, the direct object pronoun isn’t placed before the modal verb, but rather between the modal verb and the verb:

Je peux t’aider.I can help you.
Tu veux me rencontrer.You want to meet me.
Il doit le donner.He must give it.
Elle va nous trouver.She’s going to find us.

In the negative form, ne and pas comes in between the modal verb, before the direct object pronoun:

Je ne peux pas t’aider.I can’t help you.
Tu ne veux pas me rencontrer.You don’t want to meet me.
Il ne doit pas le donner.He mustn’t give it.
Elle ne va pas nous trouver.She’s not going to find us.

Imperative tense

L’impératif (imperative tense) is used to give instructions or orders. Contrary to all other tenses, the direct object pronoun is placed right after the verb at the imperative tense, with a hyphen to connect them:

La porte est encore ouverte. Fermela.

The door is still open. Close it

In the negative form, however, the direct object pronoun goes back before the verb, with ne and pas coming before and after them.

La porte est encore ouverte. Ne la ferme pas.

The door is still open. Don’t close it

Go out and practice direct object pronouns in French

Now you have all the tools to use direct object pronouns in French and express yourself in a more refined grammatical style. Try them out in your day-to-day French practice to avoid repetition and to come across as a French-speaking pro. 

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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