My French is not good enough to ask this question in French, but hopefully I can understand the answers!

I bought a copy of Le Petit Prince in French and I have been reading it to improve my French. At the moment I would be lucky to fully understand half of the sentences.

In chapter IX, the Little Prince leaves his planet and says good-bye to his flower:

– J'ai été sotte, lui dit-elle enfin. Je te demande pardon. Tâche d'être heureux.

In chapter X, he meets a king. He says:

– Sire, lui dit-il… je vous demande pardon de vous interroger…

I have two questions about these phrases.

  1. I understand lui as the object, e.g. Je le lui donne - I give it to him, so why does it appear directly before the verb dit in lui dit-il?
  2. I understand dit-elle as one way of asking a question, e.g. Dit-elle ça? - Did she say that? Why is the verb before the pronoun in lui dit-elle? The hyphen makes it look as though the verb and il/elle belong together but I think that the verb actually belongs to lui

My naïve translations are « lui dit-elle » - *"to him said she" when it should be "he said to her" and « lui dit-il » - *"to him said he" when it should be "he said to him" but they are obviously faulty.

I noticed the phrase lui dit-il first, and I thought that lui was referring to the king and il was referring to the Little Prince, instead of the other way around. Something like "to the king said the prince" when it is actually "the prince said to the king". Then I went searching for a feminine version (which is hard because there are very few female characters!) and found lui dit-elle, so I knew my understanding was wrong but I couldn't explain why.

I may have made mistakes in my French examples...

  • "lui dit-il" and "lui dit-elle" are the same structures. But the first is a boy talking to a girl, and the second is a girl talking to a boy.
    – Random
    Jan 12, 2016 at 13:53
  • Merci @Random ! I just wanted to give more than one example. However, the second time he is talking to a king, so they are both male.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 12, 2016 at 13:56
  • It is indeed the same construction as the one used in questions. Here, it is used when inserted inside some character's words. You can also use it to remind who's speaking : - J'ai été sotte, lui dit enfin la rose. Je te demande pardon.
    – Eria
    Jan 12, 2016 at 13:57

2 Answers 2


In incises, the sentences are always reversed in French.

− J'ai été sotte, lui dit-elle enfin. Je te demande pardon. Tâche d'être heureux.

is translated in English

"I have been silly," she said to him, at last. "I ask your forgiveness. Try to be happy..."

So the incise is in regular order:

elle lui dit enfin

Elle is the subject which is then feminine (the flower talks).

Lui is the object, a "neutral" pronoun here, whether the flower speaks to a male or a female, it is always lui here.


– Sire, lui dit-il… je vous demande pardon de vous interroger…

Il is the subject which is masculine, the Petit Prince.

  • So my first thought was right that lui is the object and elle is the subject? No wonder I'm so confused!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:51
  • Indeed, not to mention lui can represent a feminine object so means either "to him" or "to her".
    – jlliagre
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:04
  • Easy way to get this straight is simply to know that il cannot be an object and lui cannot be a subject. This is no different from English where you could never, ever correctly say "Me want food" or "She loves I." <However elle can be an object sometimes, if it follows a preposition. Sigh> Jan 12, 2016 at 18:30
  • @Aerovistae as often, there are exceptions: lui ne vient pas !
    – jlliagre
    Jan 12, 2016 at 18:49
  • 1
    @Aerovistae Merci for saying that elle can be an object as well! I thought that for objects it was lui (masculine) & elle (feminine). I didn't realise it is actually lui (neuter) & elle (feminine in some cases). That was adding to my confusion! I originally (correctly) thought that lui could only be an object, but then those sentences confused me with their different word order. I have it straight now!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 13, 2016 at 3:03

You are right.
These two sentences mean the same thing (with masculine speaker):

Il (lui) dit « Va à la voiture »
« Va à la voiture » (lui) dit-il.

It fits your second exemple "Sire, lui dit-il…". Here, I guess "Le petit prince" is talking, because of "Sire", which must refer to the king, not the prince. But it may be confirmed by the context.

Now, with a feminine speaker:

Elle (lui) dit « Va à la voiture »
« Va à la voiture » (lui) dit-elle.

It fits your first example "J'ai été sotte, lui dit-elle", where "she" (the flower) talks. We know the flower is talking because of "sotte", which is feminine.

The difference is the position of the quote. Note that "lui" is facultative, and can be used for a boy or a girl. (If "Le Petit Prince" was "La Petite Princesse", you would also say "lui dit-il")

  • The order of the pronouns is more familiar to me in your examples. At the moment, the examples I gave from the book look "wrong" to me, although, I know they can't be because it is a classic French book.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:07
  • @CJDennis Indeed, in English, you would say "« Go to the car », he says". This is a difference with French :)
    – Random
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:13
  • Would you give me male-speaker-to-female-listener and female-listener-to-male-speaker examples please? I'm finding the male-to-male and female-to-female examples confusing as to who is speaking (il/elle or lui) and who is listening (lui or il/elle), which is why I asked the question!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:25
  • @CJDennis The sex of the listener doesn't change anything, as I say in my last note. So examples in the first yellow box are both male-to-male and male-to-female. Those in the second yellow box are both female-to-male and female-to-female. Because "lui" is the listener, and "il/elle" is the speaker.
    – Random
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:10
  • Your answer is good, but I didn't understand it until I read jlliagre's answer.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 13, 2016 at 2:53

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