Fluent French speakers: I need your help

French is a beautiful and romantic language, and I am enjoying every minute I spend studying and practicing it. As with any new language, however, I’m having some difficulties. I guess I shouldn’t complain, since my native tongue is English, and English is one of the most difficult language to learn. It’s got all kinds of inconsistent rules, the pronunciation of the vowels varies depending on the word, some letters are contextually pronounced as others, etc.

Back to my point. I’m struggling to understand certain rules in French, insofar as when to use different forms of the same word. I’m using a fantastic app called Duolingo which allows anyone to learn a new language, free of charge. It’s very good about explaining when to use what. But sometimes, it leaves me hanging.

Par exemple:

The words eux and les both mean ‘them.’ But are they interchangeable? If not, when do I use which word? I’ve tried scouring Google for answers, but the results are explained confusingly and are unhelpful. I’ve also occasionally seen leur, which means ‘their,’ used to mean ‘them.’ Did I make that up? Or is it really a thing? 

The phrase ce sont eux qui dirigent translates into ‘they are the ones driving.’ (Literally: it is them who drive.) Could I use les in place of eux here? Why or why not? My theory is that les refers to inanimate objects, whereas eux is in regards to people or animals. Is this at all true?

Un autre exemple:

Nous is the formal word for ‘we’/’us.’ I’m familiar with the conjugation for this form. However, on is the informal version. Sometimes, I’m caught off-guard by its usage. It seems to me that the conjugation of on is the same as the conjugation of the forms il/elle. Is this correct? (i.e. nous allons = ‘we go’; on va/il va = ‘we go,’ ‘he goes.’)

These two examples are what stump me the most in French. There are others, and as I come across them again in my studies, I will post addendums to request more help. Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!

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26 thoughts on “Fluent French speakers: I need your help

  1. If I recall correctly, “on” is the gender-neuter, singular pronoun version of “one” in English (as in “One must only drink tea with sugar). So you always use the singular verb form with it.

    1. I looked into this a bit further as well, and I think I get it now. Thanks so much. 🙂

      I’ve also done more research on eux/leur and have discovered that they are disjunctive pronouns. Even though I’ve looked up the meaning of ‘disjunctive,’ I’m still unclear. Any idea what this means?

  2. English, apart from pronunciation, is the most basic language I know, because it has no grammar nor conjugation . To speak French ( and Spanih, or German, or Russian, or etc…) you need a grammatical knowledge . Your question about les, eux, leur needs mastering grammar . Personal pronouns forms depend on their grammatical function . Third person subject : il/elle, ils/elles, masculine/feminine singular, then plural . Third person direct object : le/la, les, masc/fem sing, then plural without gender distinction . Je le vois, je la vois, je les vois (I see him, her, them ) . Third person indirect object pronouns : lui, leur, sing, plural, no gender distinction . Je lui parle, le leur parle . ( I speak to him/her, to them). Third person disjunctive pronouns : lui/elle, eux/elles, masc/fem sing, masc/fem plural : je parle avec lui, avec elle, avec eux, avec elles ( i speak with him/her, with them ) .
    Disjunctive pronouns are indirect ones that are used after prepositions, unlike the simple indirect ones which are used by themselves, the preposition being implied by the form of the pronoun . It happens that disjunctive pronouns are also used each time we need to emphatize : “Ce sont eux qui dirigent” means “Ils dirigent” but with an emphasis .
    Of course, to know which verbs trigger a direct object, a simple indirect or a disjunctive indirect you have to learn them in French, because direct or indirect are not the same from one tongue to another .
    About “on”, in colloquial French it’s used for “nous”, but its conjugation doesn’t follow the meaning, it stays the same, third person singular .

    1. Thank you so much for your in-depth comment. I have a much better grasp on the different types of pronouns and under which circumstances to use them now.

      You do have a point about the English language. I guess I was referring mostly to pronunciation. 🙂

      In fact, check out this poem of you have a chance:

      http://www.thepoke.co.uk/2011/12/23/english-pronunciation/

      Again, thanks so much for the clarification. I’ll use your comment as a point of reference whenever I am having trouble again.

  3. Hello! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    I think I can help with the pronouns.

    “Les” is a direct object pronoun. You use it if the referent is the direct object of your sentence.
    Eg, je les donne à ma fille; I give “them” to my daughter.

    “Leur” is an indirect pronoun. You use it if the referent receives the object of the sentence.
    Eg, je leur donne une réponse; I give “them” an answer OR I give an answer “to them”

    Note that both of them come before the verb.

    “Eux” has more than one use. The most common is as the object of a preposition.
    Eg, j’ai un rendez-vous avec eux; I have a meeting with “them.”

    It can be used as an emphatic pronoun.
    Eg, Eux ils sont allés avec moi; “Them” they went with me.

    Does this help?

    1. It absolutely does help! Thank you. Yours and the previous comment I will keep in mind in the future.

      It never occurred to me that English was the odd man out insofar as lacking conjugation and differing words for these types of pronouns. Language never ceases to fascinate me.

      1. I would suggest that English is not the odd man out–only in Europe. Many languages of East Asia (eg, Indonesian, Chinese) don’t distinguish pronouns among direct object, indirect object, etc.

  4. And English is an exception too due to the lack of genders, and agreements for plural adjectives for instance . When it comes to ” Je pense que tu as raison” (I think that you’re right) and “Je sais CE que je veux ” ( I know what I want), note the presence of this grammatically logical “ce” which simply disappears in English . But wait till you learn about past participle agreements and you’ll see why a deep grammatical understanding is compulsory to speak French .
    All this is normal in all Latin languages, but German and Russian are quite complex too, and they use declination cases and 3 genders, not just two, like Latin did . But French and Latin are a piece of cake compared to the abyssal complexity of ancient Greek, whether in its grammar or its conjugation . Greek has 3 genders and even 3 numbers !
    BTW I deeply admired the poem .

    1. The usage of ‘ce’ and its counterparts (ces, cette, cela cet, cets, ça) also tend to stump me (only sometimes). In the sentence you gave as an example, ‘je sais ce que je veux,’ why is ‘ce’ necessary here? If I’m reading it correctly, its literal translation is ‘I know that’s [ce] what I want.’ Is that right?

      The only other language I’m proficient in aside from English is Spanish. Personally I find it’s much easier to learn; it’s greatly helpful that the vowel pronunciation never varies. But I’m determined to become a fluent French speaker. However, I am sometimes discouraged when I hit a bump in the road.

  5. Actually, “Je sais ce que je veux,” means, “I know that which I want.” (Some dialects of English say, “I know that what I want.”) Explaining it is a little technical, so I hope this makes sense. If the relative clause refers to a thing, then French requires that you state some thing, even if it is a filler word like “ce.” For example, “Il a vu tout ce qu’il y a dans la ville”; “He saw everything (that) there is in the town.” The “ce” is a filler so that the “que” clause has something to refer to in the preceding clause.

    Since you want to be fluent, though, don’t worry about it. Worry about the pronouns you were asking about; they can actually cause confusion. The “ce” and the past participles can come later, as they will only very rarely cause confusion. When you’re working on a language, the main thing is to use it and not get caught up on grammar. Speak, read, and write. The grammar will fill in after a while.

    Bon chance et bon courage! French is fun, and I hope you get to spend lots of time in France–a beautiful place to be.

    1. Once you gave the example, it made perfect sense to me. Every little rule and new thing about French that I am learning causes me to fall deeper in love with the language. I can see why it is considered a romantic language. 😛

      Thanks for the clarification and the encouragement! It means a lot to me.

  6. Congratulations to Mr Loving Language for his knowledge . So rare to find a language lover in the Anglo bubble . I wouldn”t say, though, that “ce” is just a filler in our example . A subordinate relative clause, by definition, has to relate to a noun ( or a pronoun standing as every pronoun for a noun ) . There are other sorts of subordinate clauses which are not relative and don’t relate to a noun . “Je pense que tu as raison ” I think that you’re right : the direct object of “I think” is the entire subordinate conjunctive clause “que tu as raison”. In “Je sais ce que je veux” the direct object of “I know” is something not yet named, but represented by this neutral pronoun “ce” . This thing is not said yet, but its nature is : it is something “that I want” . The relative clause, as always, only exists to give information about something or someone . But the French logic doesn’t forget this thing, even if it is not revealed yet . Therefore this undetermined “ce” . Note that in this case there is no cette, ces, etc… It is neutral . In Spanish they do the same ” Yo sé lo que quiero” They need “lo” and it is not a filler . In Italian “So quello che voglio”, they don”t say the simple “che” but “quello” .
    About grammar, I think that its learning must go with the rest, at least when it comes to elaborate languages . I learnt Spanish in Mexico, and in every bus I was studying grammar and conjugation just like vocabulary, all related to what I had just needed and missed before . In Brazil, where I learnt Portuguese, I painfully realized that, because of my ignorance of conjugation, a big misunderstanding had occurred from a confusion between past and future . English doesn’t need all this stuff, but other European tongues do . And the mastering of agreements, in particular for past participles, is THE reference for a French language lover between people who respect the language and those who use it as a pragmatic tool . Between the French and English tribes would I say .

    1. Ah, I understand. So, ‘ce’ is used when there’s an unknown, to-be-determined clause of the sentence. If it were specific, such as ‘I know that I want apples,’ the ‘ce’ would no longer be needed, correct? It would then become ‘je sais que je veux des pommes’ if I’m understanding what y’ou’re saying.

      By the way, where are you from? And how many languages do you speak?

  7. Your conclusion is right, but for wrong reasons . And this can lead to more mistakes in the future . It’s like maths, if you don’t get the fundamental axis of thought you’ll loose time and you’ll be never sure .
    French syntax needs to eliminate all possible imprecision, and it must be clear in the sentence structure itself that what I know is not ” that I want”, which ” Je sais que je veux” would mean . I wrote above that “I know” needs a direct object to make sense, and French syntax has to show that what I know is”what I want” , not only knowing that I’m presently able to want . If it was a person, the phrase would say : “Je sais celui que j’aime”, I know which one I love. You can see it doesn’t matter if the direct object is determined or not, the question is to show that the direct object is something or someone and not only an act, a verb like in “Je sais que j’aime” I know I’m in love . You can say ” Je sais ce que j’aime”, about a thing, or “Je sais celle que j’aime” about a woman .
    By the way, it’s the structural difference between a relative clause and a conjunctive clause . A relative clause refers to a noun ( or pronoun), to something or someone . A conjunctive clause refers to a verb . “Je sais que nous allons tous mourir “. I know we will all die . The direct object, what I believe, is a future action, or a matter of fact, anyway it is a VERB with its complements . In this sentence you don’t hide what you know, you say it straight . If you say ” Je sais ce que nous ferons” I know what we shall do, you don’t say what you know . You announce it but it’s not said yet, and this thing, this mysterious future act, is represented by the demonstrative pronoun .

    Sorry it was rather long, but I know by experience that if you penetrate the fundamental frame of a language ( of anything actually ), you’ll gain fastness and security in your guesses . And French is radically opposed to English on a spiritual level . I used to say English is a horizontal description of the world and French a vertical one . Being able to more or less bear both spirits is a wide expansion for our mind .

    I’ve been able to speak Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Moroccan Arabic and Egyptian Arabic ( completely different ) . Out of practice, these things fade but a week there brings them back quickly . And I studied for long Latin and old Greek . Bits of Hindi, and Hebrew, German and Russian, not enough to speak but enough to have a view on the structure and the mind going with it . I’m French, and English is the only living dialect I learnt at school .

    1. Don’t apologize for the length; I really appreciate you taking the time to explain this to me, so thank you. It makes sense now that ‘ce’ and its variants are needed in order to eliminate any trace of imprecision in French. Otherwise, from what you said, its meaning changes, even if only slightly.

      It seems to me now that English isn’t as difficult to learn as some other languages to native-English speakers would be. That’s not to say I’m finding French difficult, but very particular in ways I’d have never imagined.

  8. Honestly I never encountered an idiom as basic as English . Maybe some aborigenous dialects ? English literally translated in French often looks like what we write in telegrams . It is a pragmatic tool to exchange informations, and century after century it has been stripped of its “useless” elements . Genders, conjugations, subjunctive, difference between thou and you, prepositions and articles ( la tour de l’horloge = the clock tower ), differences between le, la, les, etc… Compared to any civilised language English looks rather primitive, but it’s a good thing because it is used as a tool of communication everywhere and schooling is not developed everywhere, is it ? Imagine a world where the lingua franca would be old Greek !
    French on the other hand has something unique insofar as it has been arificially man made . I don’t know other examples of that, except maybe the ancient pharaonic Egyptian, for other reasons . In the XVIth century the French king desperately felt the need of a common language to unify this lot of rebellious tribes of Gauls . It was a political goal but it was during the Renaissance and it was in France . So he commissioned a group of poets, called la Pléïade, to create a language which would be euphonic . That’s when French started to sound alien compared to other Latin languages . Spanish, Italian and Portuguese have many endings in o and a and sound familiar . French hasn’t . They changed the “ca” root in “ch” . Latin castellum, Sp. castillo, It. castello, Fr. château . They removed these ugly sounding “s” before other consonants and replaced them by ^ the circumflex accent, as you can see also in “château” . Many other trasformations were made of course .
    Then in the next century, the strong man of the time, Richelieu, the man who founded the “Académie Française”, keeper of the integrity of the language, commissioned three grammarians to elaborate grammar and syntax rules that would eradicate every possibility of misunderstanding . That’s why since then and for long French was considered as the language of clarity in European courts . So you can see French is partly the result of a human deliberate intervention, with the double goal of esthetism and clarity . When you compare this path to the stripping that built English you can start understanding the abyssal difference between both languages, thus between both minds .
    Enough about that, I don’t know if you’re even interested . But before learning a language I find useful to get some enlightenments about its roots . If ever you’re in trouble with some rules I’ll be happy to help because I’m a language lover and I think the disparition of French would be a loss for humanity .

    1. That is incredibly interesting. Not only do I love language, but I very much enjoy learning about its history as well. I did wonder about the different accents.

      I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Are there resources available that tell about the history of the French language? I’m sure there are, but I am asking if you can suggest any.

  9. Sorry, I learnt that by fragments, starting along my literary studies as a teen-ager . But all that wasn’t planified as things go now . The XVIth century seven poets group called “La Pléïade” ( from a seven poets group in the antique Alexandria ) started their existence by themselves . One of them, Joachim du Bellay, published a book called ” Défense et illustration de la langue française”. The most famous member is Pierre Ronsard . The decisive grammarians from the XVIIth century are Vaugelas and Vauvenargues . The whole century, Molière’s century, was dedicated in every noble family’s salon to the exaltation of the purest and most elegant French as possible . It’s been a strange trend, from the ending Middle-Age to the early XXth, this French obsessionfor the language ( and this was long before English invasion ) .
    Middle-Age French was many different things, in many countries now called regions, dwelled by highly rebellious people . Latin was mixed in the Northen half with Germanic roots, because of the Franks, these Germanic invaders who gave their name to the country . Everywhere, North or South, Latin was mixed with the original Celtic languages of the Gauls . The Gauls were notorious for their permanent fightings between each other or with anybody else . The majority of French blood comes from these Gauls, the Franks were far less numerous, and the Romans didn’t settle in number . The Normands brought some human material, like 1000 years before, the Greek had ( Marseille, founded by Greeks, is older than Rome itself ) . So, for some reason, this mixture made this “nation” and this language .

  10. History only attracted me when I learnt it willingly, through books and talks, then more books, then more discernment, and what I liked the most was strangely never approached at school, or carefully not said, or knowingly twisted . The successive stages of France’s gestation have everything I love on earth . (Though my favourite people on earth are Northern-American Natives) .

    1. I agree; you can only ever get the most out of a learning experience when you’re learning it because you want to. Not because you’re being forced to. And the most interesting facts are kept behind closed doors.

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