Il faut les rendre actifs - we have to make them active

Nous devons leur donner le choix - We have to give them the choice

Please can someone explain why the second sentence takes an indirect object pronoun?

Both the sentences' structure seem exactly the same yet have different pronouns...

  • 2
    French usage questions should be asked at French Language.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 29, 2019 at 0:20
  • @curiousdannii The question might need rephrasing but I think it belongs here. We suggested they asked here because after exchanging a few comments it seemed that their issue is more about understanding what direct and indirect objects are, whatever the language. Why does English have a direct object pronoun where French has an indirect one, etc. I thought a more general approach was needed than just telling them they have to learn what verbs requires direct or indirect object.
    – None
    Oct 29, 2019 at 6:58
  • @Laure Ah. Well, I don't think "direct" and "indirect" objects are really used very much by linguists. They're just labels of convention with no real substance, and it's often a mistake to try to port them between languages. "Why does English have a direct object pronoun where French has an indirect one" isn't a question with a meaningful answer IMO. (At least I've never heard DO/IO explained in a way that makes much linguistic sense.)
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 29, 2019 at 7:02
  • 1
    @curiousdannii Don't you think expanding on "They're just labels of convention with no real substance" could be interesting? There's a "grammatical-object" tag though and I've seen questions about grammatical relations.
    – None
    Oct 29, 2019 at 7:10

2 Answers 2


In many languages, including French and English, verbs generally take zero to three nouns as "arguments".

  • Zero: "it's raining"
  • One: "I'm walking"
  • Two: "I'm eating a cake"
  • Three: "I'm giving you a cake" / "I'm giving a cake to you"

Traditionally, the first argument is called the "subject", the second is the "direct object", and the third is the "indirect object".

In English, when a verb takes three arguments, there are two standard ways to put the pieces together:

  • Subj Verb Indirect Direct
  • Subj Verb Direct to Indirect

But this doesn't change the roles of the nouns: if "I'm sending you a letter", or "I'm sending a letter to you", I am the subject, a letter is the direct object, and you are the indirect object.

That's why you use leur in your second sentence: it's the third argument to the verb. The first is nous (subject), the second is le choix (direct object), the third is leur (indirect object). Why do they go in this order? Historical reasons, really: that's just the way French and English evolved, and other languages can and do do it differently.

In the first sentence, on the other hand, the verb only takes two nouns as arguments. The first isn't stated (subject), the second is les (direct object). There's a third argument, but it isn't a noun, and only nouns fill in these three slots; other types of arguments, even if they're mandatory, don't fit into this same structure. (See also prepositional phrase arguments. These can also be mandatory: you can't just say *"I put the book", you have to put the book on something, or in something, or under something, etc. But they don't fit into the subject-direct object-indirect object system.)

  • Your last example, put the book is nice; The same was that put the book away has away as a prepositional object, that is adverbial to the clause (isn`t it), put away the book would have an adverb; and I feel that devons leur works very similarly.
    – vectory
    Oct 28, 2019 at 21:57

If you think about it, you can see the direct object (accusative case in some languages) and the indirect object (dative case in some languages) in English in your examples:

Who do I make active?

To make someone active.

Who do I give the choice to?

To give the choice to someone.

Now English has a specificity that makes you can transform this into:

To give someone the choice.

I'm not good enough in English to talk about this, but it seems it only works when there is direct complement too (here the choice), so I think your question is more "why can we use them in English instead of to them in some cases?".

When there is only one complement, which is direct:

J'aime mes parents => Je les aime

I love my parents => I love them

And when it's indirect:

Je parle à mes parents => Je leur parle

I talk to my parents => I talk to them

And with two complements, a direct one and an indirect one:

Je donne des pommes à mes parents

I give apples to my parents OR I give my parents apples

Je leur donne des pommes

I give apples to them OR I give them apples

Je les leur donne

I give them to them

Can you say "I give them them", with the first them being the parents?

  • 1
    It's misleading to call anything in English the dative. English does not have that case.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 29, 2019 at 10:09
  • Thanks, you are right, I'm gonna change the phrasing.
    – Destal
    Oct 29, 2019 at 11:13

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