How to use French Indirect Object Pronouns - Les compléments d'objets indirects

Les compléments d’objets indirects, or Indirect Object Pronouns, are used to replace indirect objects in a sentence to avoid repetition. For example: Charlie speaks to Mark. Charlie is excited to give it to him. To him is the indirect object pronoun.

What's an indirect object?

Unlike a direct object, un objet indirect, or an indirect object, is to whom or for whom is an action is received. In the example:

On donne le pain au gars.
We give the bread to the guy.

Le pain is the direct object and au gars is the indirect object because it is to whom the action is received (the guy is being given the bread). In English (and in French), to find out which word in the sentence is the indirect object, ask yourself: To whom/for whom is [the direct object] being [main action]? In the above example, we could could ask: To whom/for whom is the bread given? Let’s try another example:

Christine dit la réponse à Sierra.
Christine tells the answer to Sierra.
Indirect object: à Sierra

What's the difference between a direct and indirect object?

In English, it is not always obvious what is the direct object and what is the indirect object. As we already know, we can ask What/who is receiving the action? to determine the direct object. For the indirect object (usually people or animate nouns), we can ask To whom/for whom is the action being done? For example:

Mary and Abdul give Cory a present.
What is being given? A present
To whom/for whom is a present given? Cory
Direct object: A present
Indirect object: Cory

In French, you can use the same questions above to find out which are the direct and indirect objects. The good thing about French is that an indirect object (usually people or other animate nouns) will always be preceded by à or pour, whereas direct objects are not preceded by any preposition.

Marie et Abdul donnent à Cory un cadeau.
What is being given? Un cadeau
To whom/for whom is a present given? À Cory
Objet direct: Un cadeau
Objet indirect: À Cory

Differences between French and English

Unfortunately, if an object is indirect in English, it may not be indirect in French. Most of the time, an indirect object of a verb in English will also be an indirect object of that same verb in French; but not always. Here are a few examples:

Example 1: We speak to our friends (indirect object).
Exemple 1: Nous parlons à nos amis (objet indirect).

Example 2: They give their Mom (indirect object) a present (direct object).
Exemple 2: Ils donnent un cadeau (objet direct) à leur mère (objet indirect).

Example 3: I phone my sister (direct object).
Exemple 3: Je téléphone à ma sœur (objet indirect).

In Example 1, you can see that to our friends/à nos amis are indirect objects in both languages. In Example 2, you will notice that the direct objects and indirect objects are the same in both languages, however the order is different. In French, it is generally preferred to have the direct object come before indirect objects. In Example 3, the object is direct in English, but indirect in French. The reason for this change is because the verb to phone someone is téléphoner à quelqu’un. Sometimes, in French, prepositions are added or taken away from their English counterpart, so keep this in mind when using direct and indirect object pronouns.

Indirect Object Pronouns

The direct object pronouns are always placed before the verb, unlike in English. For example:

Louis m’écrit.
Louis writes to me.

Monica ne me l’achète pas.
Monica doesn’t buy it for me.

Here is a list of all the indirect object pronouns in French, with their associated English meanings:

Français English
me to/for me
te to/for you (singular, informal)
lui to/for him, to/for her
y to/for it
nous to/for us
vous to/for you (formal or plural)
leur to/for them

Indirect Object Pronouns with Two Verbs

When you have two verbs, where the second verb is in the infinitive form, the indirect object pronouns precedes the second verb. For example:

Laure veut lui cuisiner les pâtes.
Laure wants to cook the pasta for her.

Son père ne va pas leur acheter un chat.
Her dad is not going to buy a cat for her.

Indirect Object Pronouns with an Infinitive

If there is an infinitive that uses a indirect object pronoun, the pronoun still precedes the verb.

Pour leur téléphoner, achetez une carte.
To phone them, buy a card.

Avant de lui demander, vérifie mon numéro de téléphone.
Before asking him, check my phone number.

Indirect Object Pronouns with le Passé Composé

When there is a past participle (such as in the passé composé, plus-que-parfait, futur antérieur, conditionnel passé, subjonctif passé), the indirect object pronoun will precede the first verb.

Je lui ai vendu l’ordinateur mercredi.
I sold her the computer on Wednesday.

Elle me l’a rendu hier.
She gave it to me yesterday.

The indirect object pronoun never agrees with the past participle (participe passé), unlike the direct object.

Indirect Object Pronouns with Commands in the Imperative

In the imperative mood, for commands and orders, the indirect object pronouns come after the verb, joined by a dash.

Explain to them.

Téléphone-moi demain.
Phone me tomorrow.

This rule does not apply when we say a negative command.

Ne nous lis pas l’article.
Don’t read the article to us.

Here is an updated list of all the indirect object pronouns in French used with the imperative mood, with their associated English meanings:

Français English
to me
to you (singular, informal)
lui to him, to her
y to it
nous to us
vous to you (formal or plural)
leur to them

* If moi or toi are going to be followed by y or en, then moi changes back to m’ and toi changes back to t’.

Indirect Object Pronouns with Inversion

When you have inversion, the indirect object pronoun remains in front of the appropriate verb and it’s only the subject pronoun (je, tu, il, elle, etc) that changes position.

Leur enseignes-tu les mathématiques ?
Do you teach them math?

Peux-tu mapporter de l’eau ?
Can you bring me some water?

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