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When I am learning Duolingo's French course, there is a sentence that goes:

En ajoutant une personne, on devient leur ami sur Facebook.

I feel that there's probably something weird in this sentence.

If this was English, of course we could say things like "By adding a person, we become their friend on Facebook", and that's because in English "they" is used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

However, as far as I know, in French, the gender of the possessive pronoun (sorry if I'm using the wrong term) should agree with the word following it (here, "ami"), not based on the gender of the pronoun itself, so there is no reason to use something like "their". What's more, it seems that this "leur" refers to "une personne" (that is, the person you just added). From this point of view, it should also be singular. In conclusion, I feel that it works better here if "son" instead of "leur" is used.

I'm not sure who is right, me or Duolingo? Is "leur" also used in French in this way? (Regardless of whether it is considered a malformed subcultural(?) usage under the influence of English, or that it is already widely accepted and no one thinks it is wrong.) Or, is it only a mistranslation from an English sentence by the Duolingo team?

I would appreciate it very much if you could answer my question.

Sorry for not using French, but that's because my French is quite low-level and I have difficulties trying to convey what I want to say.

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    Goog question +1. Welcome to FSE.
    – Dimitris
    Jan 21 at 13:16
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    You have great answers about the involved grammar and why it i formally incorrect, note however that this sentence does not sound particularly weird to French ears.
    – WoJ
    Jan 22 at 8:18

4 Answers 4

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This is indeed probably a mistranslation from English. Whoever was responsible for the translation seemingly did not pay attention to the fact that the first part of the English sentence contained a singular noun, while the second used, we presume, the (nominally) plural determiner their. That word therefore gets translated as leur, as it would be in most contexts.

Gender neutrality is not at issue here, because leur refers equally to females and males and, by extension, to any other gender. Also, if the intention had been to use gender-neutral language, the word ami would have been written ami·e, ami(e) or something like that.

It is not correct that leur should agree with the gender of the word following it. That rule only applies to singular determiners, see below. (It does have to agree with the number, though, so “their friends” becomes “leurs amis/amies”.)

Your other point is correct. Singular determiners—previously called adjectifs possessifs and more recently déterminants possessifs in French—must agree with the word with which they stand. We say sa femme but son mari. As you state, the word to use is therefore son. It so happens, however, that sa becomes son before a vowel. Therefore, both “on devient son ami” and “on devient son amie” are correct, and if we want to be gender neutral we can write “on devient son ami·e”.

Note that leur is also the dative—if we want to call it that—form of the third person plural personal pronoun.

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    Instead of Dative, which is a term often used in describing grammars of Germanic languages, I think the more official term is pronoms objets indirects in French(Indirect Object Pronouns).
    – dvx2718
    Jan 21 at 21:21
  • @dvx2718 Yes, I probably should have added that. Unfortunately the terminology differs a lot between languages and countries even if we are often talking about the same thing.
    – Segorian
    Jan 21 at 22:12
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    @Segorian In my experience, «COI» is the most common term for that in French grammars. (complément d’objet indirect)
    – wjandrea
    Jan 22 at 19:46
  • Thank you very much for your detailed and informative answer! Now I have a clear idea about the usage of determiners.
    – Xin Shiyu
    Jan 23 at 8:52
  • I think this answer is slightly missing the point that in English, the word "their" is used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. So a translation of the intent would be to attempt gender neutrality, rather than trying to translate the word "their" directly.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 23 at 16:09
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While leur is indeed incorrect here, I would like to correct you on one point.

You state

the gender of the possesive pronoun (sorry if I'm using the wrong term) should agree with the word following it (here, "ami"), not based on the gender of the pronoun itself, so there is no reason to use something like "their"

In French, a possessive article (formally, déterminant possessif, previously known as adjectif possessif) is based on both:

  • the "personne" and number of the "owner"
  • and the gender and number of the "owned".

The personne is je/tu/il/nous/vous/ils (1st to 3rd person singular, 1st to 3rd person plural), which denotes the relationship to the persons talking:

  • je (1st person singular) -> mon/ma/mes: the owner is the person talking, who is a single person
  • tu (2nd person singular) -> ton/ta/tes: the owner is the person being talked to, who is a single person
  • il/elle (3rd person singular) -> son/sa/ses: the owner is another person, who is a single person. Note that the gender of the owner does not matter.
  • nous (1st person plural) -> notre/nos: the owner is a group of people, the person talking being part of this group
  • vous (2nd person plural) -> votre/vos: the owner is a group of people, the person(s) being talked to being part of this group
  • ils/elles (3rd person plural) -> leur/leurs: the owner is a group of people, and neither the person talking or the person being talked to are part of this group. The gender of the owners does not matter.

So the person and number (but not gender) of the "owner" dictate the root. This is then complemented by a suffix which depends on the gender and number of the person or thing "owned".

  • Suffix -on (mon, ton, son): masculine or neutral singular or if feminine but the word after the article starts with a vowel
  • Suffix -a (ma, ta, sa): feminine singular
  • Suffix -otre (notre, votre) and leur (whole word): singular without distinction of gender
  • Suffix -es (mes, tes, ses), -os (nos, vos) or -s (leurs): plural without distinction of gender

So there are a total of 15 different forms depending on the combination:

Owner     Owned                                           Article
Je        Singular, masculine/neutral/followed by a vowel mon
Je        Singular, feminine                              ma
Je        Plural                                          mes
Tu        Singular, masculine/neutral/followed by a vowel ton
Tu        Singular, feminine                              ta
Tu        Plural                                          tes
Il/Elle   Singular, masculine/neutral/followed by a vowel son
Il/Elle   Singular, feminine                              sa
Il/Elle   Plural                                          ses
Nous      Singular                                        notre
Nous      Plural                                          nos
Vous      Singular                                        votre
Vous      Plural                                          vos
Ils/Elles Singular                                        leur
Ils/Elles Plural                                          leurs

Leur would have required the owner to be "ils" (and then its form would be independent of the gender of the owned).

But indeed, French does not use "ils" as a gender-neutral form. The traditional gender-neutral form is the same as the masculine. If you want to be explicitly more generic, you would write il/elle, but that would not change the déterminant possessif in this case, which would still be son/sa/ses depending on the gender and number of the "owned". More recently, you could use "iel", but that is usually used only if you want to denote that the person being talked to explicitly does not wish to be gendered (though I'm sure some take a different view).

As for the gender of the "owned", the default neutral is likewise the masculine form (as is echoed by the use of "ami"), so it would be "son". If you want to be explicitly inclusive, you would write "son ami(e)": the article doesn't change because even though is should be sa for feminine, one goes back to son when the article is followed by a word starting with a vowel (you wouldn't say "sa amie").

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    I feel this answer could be even better by including lines for Elle in the table, to make it clear that you just don't need to worry at all about the gender of the owner
    – AakashM
    Jan 22 at 10:17
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    @AakashM Thanks, made a few adjustments to reflect this.
    – jcaron
    Jan 22 at 10:40
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Your analysis is spot on. In standard French, the possessive pronoun must agree with the gender and number of the associated noun. Given that "ami" is masculine singular, the accurate possessive pronoun is "son," not "leur."

The corrected sentence would read:

En ajoutant une personne, on devient son ami sur Facebook.

It's plausible that Duolingo's translation was influenced by the English use of "their" to avoid gender specification. However, in French, adherence to agreement between the possessive pronoun and the noun is crucial.

As a more neutral option, consider:

En ajoutant une personne, on devient des ami.e.s sur Facebook.

It's worth noting that the so-called écriture inclusive, while not widely accepted in French, is a means that some use for gender neutrality. However, its usage can be viewed as promoting specific political agendas and it is still considered controversial.

For other similar questions search in FSE the lemma 'écriture inclusive'.

Edit

See also the comments following the answer.

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    Good, but note that it's more accurate to say that the possessive determiner agrees with both the possessor and the thing possessed: it's sensitive to the possessor's person (1/2/3) and number (S/P), and the possessed's gender (M/F) and number (S/P). What makes the Duolingo sentence's attempt at écriture inclusive a misfire is therefore a little more specific than which side to agree with.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jan 21 at 13:48
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    (More for fun than anything: a minimal distinction in the possessor's person is seen in mon vs. ton; possessor's number: mes vs. nos; possessed's gender: mon vs. ma; possessed's number: mon vs. mes.)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jan 21 at 13:51
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    Why "des" in the more neutral form? The possessive "son" is already gender neutral here since "ami/e" starts with a vowel, so "son ami·e" works just fine. If you really wanted to add the notion that it's bidirectional, then "on devient amis" would be more natural.
    – Kaiido
    Jan 22 at 1:05
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French inflections don't change for ideological reasons

It's: en ajoutant une personne, on devient son ami

The son inflects for ami, not for la personne, but it doesn't appear to inflect, because the masculine noun l'ami and the feminine noun l'amie start with letter a, so it's son ami or son amie

Where it's known the writer is a girl or woman, it's: on devient son amie.

Where a set of people which may include men and women are saying this, it's classically: on devient son ami.

But there is nothing bad about neat punctuations like: on devient son ami[e].

Or poetic constructs like: on devient son amie, son ami

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