One of the trickier aspects of speaking or writing a foreign language involves learning the rules of word order. This may be a simple question of adjectives following or preceding the noun, or it may affect the whole structure of the sentence. In Latin, for instance, the verb tends to come right at the end of the sentence, whereas in Welsh the verb form basically has to be the very first word, with everything else coming after. Even the (allegedly) Nice ‘n’ Easy German Grammar on my desk admits that German word order “can be a bit confusing”, and I suppose the example “Das verstehe ich nicht” (I don’t understand that” might in this sense be very apt!
My reason for introducing the topic of word order is two-fold. First, I’d like to make just one more point about the adverbs mentioned in the previous post; and then we can move on to another topic altogether, that of pronouns. The latter will allow us to explore several issues which can seem awkward to anyone learning French as a foreign language, especially if it is their first foreign language. But once again, and as always, I want to place any perceived difficulties in the wider context of language rather than just seeing them as issues in French.
First, to go back briefly to the topic of adverbs. I already said that they “add to verbs”, and it’s useful to see this phrase not just as adding meaning to verbs but in the way that the words tend to follow the verb in French. This is not a rigid rule – it is possible to have an adverb right up front for stress or some other effect, as in “Normalement je quitte la maison à 8 heures” – but the crucial thing for native English speakers to remember is that you can’t slip the adverb in between the subject and the verb as we do in “I often go to the cinema”. The adverb (or adverbial phrase) is generally added to the verb: “Je vais souvent au cinéma”.
It should be quite easy to remember this principle, since it mirrors the way that French adjectives normally follow the noun that they qualify. We don’t really need to say any more about it.
Pronouns are basically words that stand instead of nouns to save the boredom of constantly repeating the names of people and things. In other words, once you’ve referred to Peter or Mary it’s easier for all concerned to use pronouns like “he”, “she” or “them” in further references. We use the form “they” when Peter and Mary form the subject of a verb (They were very close), while “them” is used when the couple are the object of the verb (We saw them yesterday).
At this point I need to make just one more distinction: this post is about direct object pronouns. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into any discussion of the indirect sort (not today, anyway!), but it’s as well to be accurate in our use of terms – and probably as well also to list the direct object pronouns right here:
Note that the distinction between “le” and “la” in the third person of the singular refers not only to people but also to things. In English we use “him” or “her” for people – and maybe dogs, or ships, or even favourite cars! – but for inanimate objects we generally use “it”. French can rely on a simple “le/la” distinction because all nouns also have (grammatical) gender.
Those, then, are the basic forms, performing much the same sort of role in either language. But (and this is where I come back to the main topic of the post) the big, big difference in the languages is in the way that the object pronoun precedes the verb in French: “Ils nous insultent!” means they (subject) are insulting us (object), and it is vital to understand that this object (or accusative) form – is different from the subject (or nominative) equivalent of “we” in “Nous les insultons”. If this is new to you, have another look at the verb endings in these two examples and notice how they match up with the subject pronouns.
One other point to notice is that the singular forms will change form ever so slightly if they are followed by a vowel, as the final vowels sounds of the pronoun just elide into the following word. So “Je t’aime” shows the same object pronoun “te” as in “je te cherche”. Meanwhile, you might observe doting grandparents gazing at a baby and say that “Ils l’adorent”. If you’re thinking that this last example smudges the question of the gender of said baby, yes, you’re right, it is indeed a theoretical problem – but no more so than in English, where comedy has long relied on situations such as the instructions given to the man about to hit a nail with a large hammer: “When I nod my head, hit it!”. In practice there is no ambiguity in French because the direct objects “le” and “la” will always be used with reference to some previously mentioned person or thing; the context will therefore make it quite clear what one is talking about.
Having now established that the object pronouns precede the noun, let’s just look at two very slight extensions of that rule. You will see that these are entirely logical.
First, the examples given above are all in the present tense. So what happens in a compound tense such as the perfect, where we use the verb avoir to say that we have done (or did) something. Well, just as in the English equivalent, we aren’t seeing avoir as a different verb here, but simply as a bolt-on extension of the main verb. So any direct object pronoun will naturally go in front of that variable part of the compound verb: “je t’ai cherché partout” (I looked for you everywhere), or “nous l’avons considéré” (we (have) considered it).
A second, equally logical, extension concerns the situation outlined in the following table. Each line shows a basic statement with the object as a noun (column 1), then re-expressed with the direct object as a pronoun (column 2), before a modified verb appears in column 3. In each case the direct object or object pronoun are printed in blue:
|Je visite le musée demain||Je le visite demain||Je veux le visiter demain|
|Tu apprécies son style?||Tu l’apprécies?||Tu peux l’apprécier|
|Nous cherchons les clés||Nous les cherchons||Nous allons les chercher|
As explained earlier, in the second column the object pronouns appear before the verb. In the third column an extra dimension is provided by the addition of a verb known as an auxiliary – words like “vouloir”, “pouvoir” and “aller” – but the crucial point is that the direct object is placed directly before the verb which controls or governs its meaning: in other words, I am going to visit it (the museum), or we are going to look for them (the keys). Obviously this reverses the situation in English, where the object directly follows the verb which governs meaning. However, this is simply another illustration of cultural differences such as driving on the left or the right; in each language the normal habit (putting the pronoun either before or after the main verb) is preserved.
At this point we should pause, or you might well be going back to that earlier phrase : “Das verstehe ich nicht”! But of course, if you don’t understand, please ask for further (or better) explanations.