How to explain the situation in French where an object pronoun needs to precede the predicate, while an object R-expression stands to the right of the predicate?

Here is an example:

a. Il le regarde. (He him sees.)
b. Il regarde Julie. (He sees Julie.)

(Tense is not considered here to make the sentences simpler)

Sentence (a) shows that the pronoun le precedes the verb. However, in sentence (b), the name Julie follows the verb.

I wonder how phrase structure grammar explains this phenomenon. Could somebody help me comprehend it?

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    Romanian goes even further: in your sentence b. it is O vede pe Julie. “Her sees at Julie”, that is, even if a noun object is present, the pronominal clitic corresponding to the object (o “her, Accusative”) is nevertheless included in the verbal complex.
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 16, 2021 at 18:12
  • @YellowSky. Yes, a good point.
    – fdb
    Nov 16, 2021 at 22:58
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    @YellowSky Spanish does the same (with animate objects): La ve a Julia ‘her sees to Julia’. In Spanish, this is contextually necessary because Spanish tends to favour OVS in this type of sentence, so la ve Julia means ‘Julia sees her/it’; I don’t know if this is the case in Romanian as well. Nov 17, 2021 at 1:56
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    So if we ignore the orthographic convention of putting spaces in between, Romanian and Spanish seem like a very similar situation to Aztec, Swahili, Ainu: the transitive verb has pronominal affixes to agree with the object, and an NP may or may not be present. Nov 17, 2021 at 8:43

1 Answer 1


Words like je, le, lui are historically pronouns (meaning: they derive from Latin freestanding pronouns) and are treated orthographically as separate words, but from a synchronic point of view they are best treated as clitics. This goes also for the negative particle ne. In English you can say “I am not giving it to him” or “I am not giving him it”, but in French you must say “je ne le lui donne pas”; the order of the clitics is absolutely fixed and the phrase is articulated as a single speech act. In English you could say “I am not … um …. giving it…. um ….. to him”, but in French you cannot do this. Thus, these clitics function differently from proper or common nouns, as in “je ne le donne pas à Jacques”, where “à Jacques” is not part of the verbal complex.

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    You can say Je (ne) le donne pas à lui though, and even Je donne pas ça à lui.
    – jlliagre
    Nov 16, 2021 at 20:07
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    @jlliagre. Of course. The clitics can be replaced by genuine pronouns, after the verb.
    – fdb
    Nov 16, 2021 at 21:14
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    @jlliagre. I agree. It is not a good example.
    – fdb
    Nov 16, 2021 at 22:39
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    It seems that the characteristics of clitics make them distinct from common pronouns. Thank you for your answer. Good point
    – Buffoon
    Nov 17, 2021 at 4:41
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    A professor I had in a typology course regularly gives the fun assignment of analysing the verbal system of an "exotic African language", which in fact is French with the verbs and clitics written together in phonetic spelling :D Nov 17, 2021 at 9:30

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