I want to express the following idea in French:

Ils nous prêtent Isabelle.

Verb "prêter" is used figuratively here.

Now since I was talking to Isabelle (my mother-in-low) I put it this way:

Ils nous te prêtent.

For me the transition from one form (using the noun Isabelle) to another (using a pronoun) is rather straightforward: it is a direct object complement, so I replace the noun with direct pronoun for second person singular: "te".

My wife, a French, dismissed my sentence as "not French". My mother-in-law, who's a teacher at school, couldn't give me a satisfying explanation as how to construct such a sentence in French.

I want to know if my sentence is indeed incorrect. If so, how should I rephrase it and why? What rules apply here?


The phenomenon you've stumbled upon, sometimes called the Person Case Constraint in the linguistic literature, reflects a general tendency of languages with weak pronouns or polypersonal verbal agreement: some combinations of pronouns are prohibited depending on person and case (the grammatical role they have in the sentence, i.e. subject, direct or indirect object).

The way the constraint works in French is that some combinations of direct and indirect pronouns are prohibited (some other languages block subject and object combos too):

  • Any combination of first and second person object pronouns is prohibited: "Je me te prête" is never grammatical, whether it means "I loan myself to you" or "I loan you to myself". Likewise "Je me me prête" and "Je te te prête" are impossible.

  • All combinations of third person pronouns are allowed: Je la lui prête, Je le leur prête, Je leur en prête, Je les leur prête, etc. Note however than in casual speech, any combination of la/le/les and lui/leur is reduced to just the indirect object pronoun (Je leur prêtee can stand for "je la leur prête", "je le leur prête" or "je les leur prête")

  • When those two groups are mixed, only some combinations are allowed: combos of first or second person direct objects and third person indirect objects are prohibited; combos of first or second person indirect objects and third person direct objects are allowed. In other words, "Je vous leur prête" (I'm loaning you to them) is ungrammatical while "Je vous les prête" (I'm loaning them to you) is grammatical.

Your sentence (Ils nous te prêtent) violate the first rule: it has a first person indirect object pronoun and a second person direct object pronoun, a prohibited combination.

The usual way to avoid violating the person case constraint in French is to use a strong indirect object pronoun instead of a weak one. Since the constraint only affects weak elements dependant on the verb (clitics or affixes), but not independants words like strong pronouns or nouns phrases, you can rephrase your sentences to "ils te prêtent à nous".

The root cause of the constraint probably comes from a desire to avoid ambiguity by prohibiting the rarer combinations: the first and second persons almost always refer to human beings involved in the action and as such tend to be subjects and indirect objects (recipients or experiencers of the actions) and more rarely direct objects, and all the combos that French prohibits are those where a first or second person direct object would appear together with an indirect object, in contradiction of this tendency.

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    Wouldn't the construction "Ils te prête à nous.", which seems rare, be used only with the connotation "to us, not anyone else"? – LPH Aug 27 at 16:01
  • "ils te prêtent à nous" is false in fact. No one would ever say this in France – LadyNeya Aug 28 at 8:28
  • @LadyNeya would you please develop? In fact "ils te prêtent à nous" was suggested to me by French people, they just failed to provide any explanation (the reason why I ask here). – Ahmad Shahwan Aug 28 at 12:41
  • @AhmadShahwan I don't have a grammar explanation as i'm not a french teacher. The only thing that i can say, it's that it is not french at all. Even the "Ils te prêtent" when te is a person is false. The only thing you can say is "Isabelle nous est prêtée [par X personne]" "Elle nous est prêtée [par X person]". – LadyNeya Aug 28 at 15:18
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    @LadyNeya prêter quelqu'un is pragmatically weird, but it can be said, either figuratively or by speaking about football player loans and when that's the case the "ACC prêter à PRON" structure can be found (several translations of the Divine Comedy have "O divine vertu, si tu te prêtes à moi" for example, or this example from the TLFi: "Je me prête à vous pour aujourd'hui, faites de moi ce que vous voudrez", which seems adapted from a christian prayer (Je me prête à vous, comme à mon souverain Maître : faites en moi ce qu'il vous plaira) – Eau qui dort Aug 28 at 16:16

Your wife is right. That is not a possible construction. A pronoun can be used in that position, but not a personal pronoun used for the person to whom you speak (te, vous) nor for the person who is speaking (me, nous). "La" could be used if speaking of the "lended" person to somebody else. We'd have this following sentence.

  • Ils nous la prête.

If you want to say it to the "lended" person other forms are possible but the same participants can't be used in those forms and the context can be slightly different.

  • Tu nous est prêtée. (There is no reference to who is doing the lending.)
  • Ils nous prêtent quelqu'un, c'est toi. (close rendering)
  • Ils nous prêtent quelqu'un et c'est toi. (close rendering)

I can't assert why this is so but I have the strong intuition that usage is the sole reason.

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    "Ils te prêtent à nous" is fine, but "ils nous prêtent toi" isn't grammatical at all for me – Eau qui dort Aug 27 at 13:39
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    @Eauquidort On trouve ceci dans LBU (14ième édition) : d'abord l'exemple « Il a fallu TOI et aussi parce que c'est l'heure (GLONO, Un de Baumugnes, II). », puis indépendamment à la section 661, « Le pronom est coordonné. Souvent, le complément est annoncé devant le verbe par un pronom conjoint. il veut vous voir TOI et ta sœur (Ac. 1835-1878, s. v. tu). — Il viendra NOUS voir, VOUS et MOI (Ac. 1935, s. v. moi). — Je LES ai vus, son épouse et LUI Mais, contrairement aux exigences de certains grammairiens, le pronom conjoint peut manquer. ». (1/2) – LPH Aug 27 at 15:53
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    @Eauquidort On trouve aussi ceci dans la même section: « Autres cas (où, comme parmi les ex. qui précèdent, on remarque plus d'une fois des tours négatifs) : Si votre lettre a trait à un fait qui concerne NOUS et non EUX (PROUST, Rech, 1.1, p. 742). » Que faut-il penser de cela ? Est-ce que le contexte dans lequel je crois que « toi » peut être utilisé ne comporterait pas implicitement cette négation ? (toi « et pas d'autres », ou « pas les autres »). Modifier le texte et le rendre explicite serait peut-être suffisant. (2/2) – LPH Aug 27 at 15:53
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    The issue here isn't the use of toi without a weak pronoun reprising it (although the sentence from Glono or Proust aren't really something I'd ever produce, it's litterature who authors were born a century before I was), it's the choice of which strong pronoun to use in a sentence where you can't use both weak object pronouns. It's just a lot more common, verging on obligatory, to chose the indirect object in this case – Eau qui dort Aug 27 at 18:47

I second everything that @LPH said, but I'd also add:

  • Ils te prêtent à nous.
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