Subject Pronouns in Textbooks: Written vs. Spoken French

Thanks to corpus linguistics, the differences between written and spoken French are easier to describe and analyze. Since I am particularly interested in how textbooks treat both types of French, I was happy to see research comparing corpus linguistics data to textbook representations of the subject pronouns by Waugh and Fonseca-Greber at the University of Arizona. Their data confirms that textbooks teach the written form of French, but that the spoken form is still largely ignored.

The pronouns that they analyzed were tu, nous, vous, ils, and on. In written French, the pronouns mean:

  • tu : you (singular and familiar)
  • nous : we
  • vous : you (plural and formal)
  • ils : they
  • on : one / you / they (indefinite)

However, their data shows that these labels are inadequate for spoken French. In their corpus of 194,000 words, nous meaning we was only used 1% of the time, on was used much more often to mean we (76.3%) than in the indefinite sense, and there was almost a 50/50 split of both tu and ils being used in the indefinite sense rather than just meaning you and they, while vous was also used in the indefinite sense in a few cases. Statistically, vous used in the indefinite sense is not very significant (only 1.3%), but it does prove that this use of the pronoun is possible in spoken French. The most interesting to me was comparing on and tu used as indefinites, as tu was used more than twice as often as on!

Therefore, in spoken French, the subject pronouns are:

  • tu : you (singular and familiar) AND one / you (indefinite)
  • nous : very rarely we
  • vous : you (plural and formal) AND very rarely one / you (indefinite)
  • ils : they AND one / they (indefinite)
  • on : we AND sometimes one / you / they (indefinite)

In a few ways, learning the spoken pronouns is easier. Both tu and ils in the indefinite sense correspond to the English usage of you and they in the indefinite. On is not used as often in the indefinite sense much like one is not used all that often in English. And since nous is rarely used, the verb conjugation of first person plural is also rarely needed.

I remember many of my textbooks emphasizing that you cannot use tu in the indefinite and that it is incorrect and bad French. But many times what is considered wrong in written French is not, in fact, incorrect in spoken French. It’s simply the notion of appropriateness within the context, and textbooks need to make this distinction clear AND teach both forms. However, textbooks still seem to be written according to intuition and not corpus data.

Linguistics is concerned with how people actually use language, as opposed to how people should use language. Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive, and the teaching of languages should be as well.

Waugh and Fonseca-Geber’s article “Authentic Materials for Everyday Spoken French: Corpus linguistics vs. French textbooks” is available for free if you’d like to see examples and the full statistics.

  •  I made a post about how I don’t believe in the general public’s idea of “correct” language on my blog.  I would like to hear what you think of it so if you ever have the time here it is: . The post is kind of long so if you are too busy it’s totally cool.  I really appreciate all of your actual language posts; they are really helpful!


  • Ed

    As an English speaker of French, I always felt awkward using “tu” in the indefinite sense when talking to people I who I would address as “vous” (formal). Even though I was using “tu” as indefinite, rather than to address the people directly, to my English mind it always felt as though I was somehow implying that I thought of them in the “informal” sense. In order to avoid this, I always reverted to “on” instead.

    I’m still not sure of the correct way to use an indefinite “tu” in a formal environment, especially as this post shows that my tactic of reverting to “on” is not as common as I might have expected…

    • Well… I might not be the best person to talk about this, because I’m a little more than beginner using French, and I know practically nothing about the French culture, but I would go around this by not using indefinite ways of expressing myself in a formal environment at all. To me, personally, the indefinite is slightly… uneducated? Very informal.
      I would use passive, I think, if I ever needed to say something indefinite in formal situations.

      • Ed

        Using the passive is definitely another way around it, however in some situations it can sound forced and unnatural.

        The other issue that comes into play is that in some situations “vous” is still used in the formal sense with people with whom you have frequent contact (for example between colleagues at my place of work). Although I agree that an indefinite “you” is slightly informal, it doesn’t have to sound uneducated, and when chatting with work mates is often more appropriate than a passive. The whole thing’s a minefield!

        • LOL I can imagine…
          Thankfully there is always the last defense – “French is not my mothertongue, pardon my crudity…”
          I suppose there are such details in every language and culture… they are so tightly connected…
          I was thinking about the Hungarian politeness/T-V distinction… Wikipedia says they have “four-tiered system” of which one is used only when discussing with the king, but you need to know five different ways of saying “you”, and know which one to use in which situation…
          We have the Vous/You/Sie form in Finnish too, and in Swedish, but the Swedes are getting rid of it, because elderly people don’t want to be reminded of their age 😀 So sometimes if you are being polite, considerate and respectful you end up offending someone 😀
          No, it’s not easy…

  • Now, that’s interesting… In Finland we use the passive (which I have learned “on” is in French) in spoken language more often as “we” than the grammatically correct “we”.
    I have always thought of “on” as the Swedish “man” – “one” (a man, a person)… but you are saying that it’s more like the Finnish passive or indefinite pronoun then…

    I think one should teach these ways of using the language, certainly, but I also think one should keep teaching the “old fashioned” definitions… because I assume the different forms of these pronouns (je-me-mon-moi-mienne) still follow the written, classical, or what you wish to call it, form. It might be easier to learn them using “nous” as “we” and not “on”.

    Also, very few people can understand this kind of “finer points” when they start learning the language. I believe it would be confusing to try to understand this in stead of the “obsolete” je, tu, il, on, nous, vous, ils -list. After all, one adjusts one’s language very quickly to the language used around one, when one finds oneself in that situation. It is not too difficult to understand even if one hasn’t heard of this before.

  • Very, very interesting, especially since I’m learning French right now and the whole use of on vs. nous thing was confusing me a bit: seems to be that “on” takes the place of “nous” to mean “we”, and where you would want to use the indefinite “you”, you would say “tu” the majority of the time…right?

    Also, I agree with your assessment at the end, but I take it a step further: linguistics and language learning are two very distinct and different fields, kind of like having a M.D. vs a PhD in Biology: they’re both sort of related, but not at all the same, not interchangeable at all.  Experts in linguistics do not necessarily (and frequently don’t) know anything whatsoever about how to learn or teach a foreign language, and people who are experts at doing that (learning and/or teaching a foreign language) do not necessarily know anything about linguistics (not that they need to, they don’t).


    • Yes, on is definitely taking the place of nous to mean we. Tu is becoming more common as the generic indefinite “you” but on is still used as well. As a foreigner, you should probably use on in that case to avoid accidentally insulting someone with informal tu, but of course you also need to understand that when a native speaker says tu, it doesn’t necessarily refer to you at all, but to the indefinite sense.

      “Experts in linguistics do not necessarily (and frequently don’t) know anything whatsoever about how to learn or teach a foreign language”

      I completely disagree with this because there are applied linguists and second language acquisition researchers who specialize in language pedagogy who are in fact experts in learning & teaching languages. It’s a very large discipline within linguistics.

      Personally, I would not call someone who is good at something an expert. To me an expert is someone who has knowledge of both theory and practice and not simply practice, and who has the proper qualifications and empirical data to back up what they say (facts, not anecdotes).