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.