I grew up in a trilingual household: French/English/Flemish.

(English & Flemish parents, Flemish school, French-speaking city.)

For as long as I can remember, my siblings and I have spoken a mixture of French and English at home. My sister's French was always a lot better than mine, and she used to correct me whenever I said this:

Je vais le téléphoner.

to me, that always sounded correct. Problem is, for a girl, I would then say:

je vais la téléphoner.

I kept making the same mistake, despite my sister repeatedly telling me that it should be:

je vais lui téléphoner

for both male and female.

I'm assuming my sister is correct. I think my brain got accustomed to the fact that English and Flemish differentiate the pronoun based on gender, as in:

I'm going to call him.
I'm going to call her.

Ik ga hem bellen.
Ik ga haar bellen.

Am I correct in saying that, in their respective languages, both of those sentences translate to the French:

Je vais lui téléphoner.


Is this one of those rare instances where French is more straightforward than English when it comes to gender?

I'd be interested to know why French doesn't differentiate based on gender in this case, and if other Romance languages are similar.

  • 1
    Part of your problem here is that French and Dutch have a different verbal valence for téléphoner/bellen. In the plural, it would be "Je vais leur téléphoner" (where leur=hun) while the (prescriptive) Dutch equivalent is "Ik ga hen bellen". The English structure is identical to the Dutch one. Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 15:25

3 Answers 3


Your logic is true but only works when the pronoun is used as a direct object, e.g.:

Je vais le dépanner.

Je vais la dépanner.

The issue is téléphoner takes an indirect object, we do not say téléphoner quelqu'un but téléphoner à quelqu'un. In such case, the pronoun is lui regardless of the gender:

Je vais lui téléphoner.

Another pronoun sharing the same characteristic (same pronoun in French, different ones in English) is se.

Il se gratte. (he is scratching himself)

Elle se gratte. (she is scratching herself)

There are other pronouns used with both genders (leur, les) but so they are in English (to them, them.)

Other Romance languages like Spanish do not make a gender difference either with an indirect object:

As llamar (por teléfono) takes a direct object in Spanish, let's use enviar (envoyer/to send) :

Le voy a enviar una carta.

I'll send him/her a letter.

Les voy a enviar una carta.

I'll send them a letter.

Same pronoun too with reflexive sentences :

(Él/ella) se esta rascando. (Spanish)

(Lui/lei) si gratta. (Italian)

  • The Spanish is only differentiated because the object of llamar is direct, like appeler. For verbs that take an indirect object, le is as undifferentiated as lui, isn't it?
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 13:24
  • @LukeSawczak You are right. I was confused by the fact Spanish says llamar a una persona despite una persona being still a direct object. Le is indeed undifferentiated.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 13:44
  • Pour être honnête, moi non plus je suis pas encore arrivé à déterminer quand on ajoute cet a — à partir de ce qu'on voit sur Duolingo ce n'est pas facile car le cours ne comprend pas trop de renseignements grammaticaux ! Voy a presentar a mi novia, la voy a presentar ...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 14:16
  • Both answers were really good. Thanks. I went with this one because of the use of examples and the added comparison with Spanish. That's a language I'm currently studying so it helped.
    – seb.yeb
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 15:28

The 3rd person singular direct object pronoun is differentiated: le vs. la.

But the 3rd-person singular indirect object pronoun is not: lui.

Many pronouns lack differentiation in French. Here's an overview of where they overlap:

Les cas grammaticaux des pronoms

The overlaps can be because the pronouns merged, because they were already the same in Latin, or because there were gaps in Latin and not all of them were filled. I think it's an interesting point you raise that such a gendered language would end up with a number of undifferentiated markers: lui, leur, les, se, and even articles like l' and des. These cases are called epicene / epicène.

In any case, the question here is, does téléphoner take a direct object or an indirect one? Do you say Je téléphone Jeanne or Je téléphone à Jeanne?

The dictionary entry shows that it's the latter:

téléphoner à qqn

So your sister is right: You use lui, which isn't differentiated.

Interesting family history!

  • You could add on in the first column. It is not clear why se has a special place, it is either a direct object or an indirect object on top of being reflexive/reciprocal. With this table, it is difficult to make sense of what pronouns can be used together.
    – GAM PUB
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 7:26
  • @GAMPUB To each his own! It's a help for me. For se, you'll notice that some pronouns are differentiated by all five functions (ils - se - les - leur - eux), hence the impossibility of reducing the number of columns. Whether we like it or not, the reflexive/reciprocal object does retain a bit of its own status rather than always standing in for an otherwise identical direct or indirect object. For adding on, I was undecided and might do so.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 13:18

In general we dintinguish between verbs that take a direct object (without the intervention of a preposition) and those that do not.

Appeler belongs to the first category (takes a direct object; accusative) whereas téléphoner belongs to the second one (takes an indirect object; dative).

J'appelle mon amie. I call my friend. Je l'appelle. I call her.

Je vais téléphoner à mon amie. Je vais lui téléphoner.

Many French intransitive verbs may take an indirect (dative) object as in English. The dative form of nouns and some pronouns is obtained by adding à; other pronouns have special dative forms.

Il parle aux étudiants. Il leur parle. À qui parlez-vous ? (He speaks to the students. He speaks to them. Whom were you speaking to?)

A number of French verbs require an indirect (dative) object, whereas their English counterparts take a direct (accusative) object. E.g.:

Repondre à = answer; ressembler à = resemble; se fier à = trust ; obéir à = obey

Many French transitive verbs, which take a direct object, may take an indirect object as well. E.g.: donner, offrir, montrer, enseigner:

Je donne le livre à mon frère => Je le lui donne.

Il enseigne le français à sa femme => Il le lui enseigne (i.e. à elle; reprise)

Il leur offrit un cadeau. He offered them a present.

Many transitive verbs may be constructed with the preposition à without representing the dative, but some other idea, such as motion to, direction of thoughts, etc. This distinction (i.e. between dative and non-dative) affects the form of some pronouns.

Verbs of motion may be constructed with non-dative à:

Il va à l'église (Il y va). Elle y courut. L'enfant est venu à moi.

But à with verbs of motion when used figuratively is dative:

L'idée leur est venue. The idea came to them.

Cela lui convient. That suits him.

Cette robe lui va. That dress suits her.

À is also not dative after, for example, a

appeler à; être à; comparer à; faire attention à; habituer à.

Ce livre est à lui. Il ne fait aucune attention à eux.

A number of other French verbs are constructed with non-dative à including

arriver à, parvenir à; croire à, jouer à, s'intéresser à, manquer à, penser à, songer à, renoncer à, avoir affaire à.

Il faut renoncer à elle. (Il lui faut renoncer is erroneous).

Je pense à Pierre. Je pense à lui (Je lui pense is erroneous).

Je m'intéresse à elle.


1) A French Reference Grammar (H. Ferrar).

2) A Student Grammar of French (M. Offold).

Grammar glossary:

1) http://www.languageguide.org/french/grammar/

2) http://www.beechencliff.org.uk/files/ml/german/prod_2/atm/common/grammar_section.pdf

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