The pronoun “on” in French… a simple two letters-word that gives so much headache to any French learner.
The use of “on” in French might be the biggest difference between written and spoken French. If you go to France, you will hear it all the time because French people generally use it informally to replace the 1st person plural “nous, we”.
However, “on” has so many different meanings, and it can get really confusing for beginners. The key to understand its meaning is to focus on the context in which “on” is used. In this article, I’ll go through everything you need to know about this impersonal French subject pronoun.
1) “On” means “we” in modern spoken French
This is the most important thing to remember about “on” in French. When French people speak, to start a sentence beginning with “we”, they almost never use “nous”, but “on”.
You probably haven’t learned this at school if you had some French classes, because it’s informal French. But don’t think that it’s something used only by young people or a certain social category of people. Even my grandparents were using “on” when they talked with me.
But don’t worry if you learned to conjugate “nous” at school, because you have to know it as well. “Nous” is mostly used in formal situations, written or spoken. For example when you write a formal email, letter, dissertation… or in a job interview, a public speech…
In fact, you might hear it more than use it, so it’s still important to feel comfortable with it.
2) The other meanings of “on” in French
“On” means “one” (or “you” in a general sense)
This might be the main traditional translation of “on”.
Careful, I’m not talking about the number “one”, but the impersonal subject pronoun “one”. You all know this sentence from The Lord of the Rings: “One does not simply walk into Mordor”, right?
Here’s another example:
> One cannot build peace if one does not tackle the structural causes of conflicts.
Obviously, it’s not the type of sentence you use every day in English. Nowadays, people would rather use a more direct style with the pronoun “you”:
“You cannot build peace if you don’t tackle the structural causes of conflicts.”
In French, it’s pretty much up to you if you want to use “tu/vous” or “on” in this case. Literally, you would have to use “tu/vous” (But the sentence with “on” is totally fine).
Note also the very common expression: On ne sait jamais > You never know. In fact, people even say “On sait jamais” (without the “ne”) because in modern spoken French, the “ne” usually disappears.
“On” replaces the passive voice
“On” can also be equivalent to the English passive voice:
We could also use the previous example in the passive voice and still have the same translation with “on” in French.
Peace cannot be built if the structural causes of conflicts are not tackled
Of course, you could also translate using the French passive voice, but French people tend to avoid using the passive voice because it sounds too formal. So “on” can be alternative for this.
“On” means “someone” or “people” in general
3) Seldom uses of “on” in French
This part might be a bit confusing so I wouldn’t recommend beginners in French to pay too much attention to it.
I just want you to know that the following ways of using “on” exist in French, but it’s better not to use them if you’re not confident in French.
“On” means “you” in a personal sense (not general)
We’ve already seen that “on” can mean “you” in a general sense. But French people sometimes use it for a person in particular, usually to emphasize or make fun of someone.
Imagine this situation:
I’m hiking with a friend, but I’m so tired that I start to walk really slowly. My friend who’s not tired at all then says to me:
Here, the context and the intonation of my friend are extremely important to get the meaning. He’s not talking about both of us, he’s just making fun of me, but not necessarily in a bad way, it’s simply to tease me a bit.
“On” means “they”
We’ve also seen that “on” can mean “people” in general. It’s not very surprising if it’s used to replace “they” sometimes.
4) Common mistakes and remarks regarding “on”
– The conjugation of “on” corresponds to the 3rd person singular “il / elle, he / she”. It NEVER takes the ending of “nous”. For example:
YOU CANNOT SAY: On sommes, On avons, On prenons, On pouvons
– “On” never means “it” because it always replaces a person or a group of persons. It might be a non-specific person, but it’s still a person.
– Concerning the agreement with the adjective or the past participle, it depends on who “on” replaces.
If the identity of “on” is unknown, you generally don’t have to make the agreement.
– When “on” is followed by a negative, don’t forget the “ n’ ”. If you say for example:
Because of the liaison in the first affirmative sentence, we have exactly the same sound between “On est” and “On n’est”. So don’t forget the “ n’ ” when you write down your sentence if it’s negative.
– Sometimes, you may encounter a “ l’ ” before “on” = “ l’on ”
Guess what? It doesn’t mean anything at all. Thank you French language…
The purpose of this “ l’ ” is to make the language sound better. French people don’t really like when two vowel sounds are pronounced one after another.
However, this “ l’ ” before the “on” is quite old-fashioned I must say, and you don’t often hear it. There’s more chance to find it in a book.
Some people use it when they speak, but it sounds quite bourgeois I think (which is not necessarily a bad thing…). Anyway, you could try to use it sometimes and see how people react. Who knows, they might think you’re cool and well-educated, so it’s up to you!
– “On” can replace “nous” only when it’s the subject pronoun, so usually when it starts a new clause. When “nous” is a direct object pronoun or a stress pronoun, you cannot replace it by “on”.
You couldn’t say: “Tu on as trouvés”.
You couldn’t say: “C’est on”.
By the way, you may noticed that French people tend to add stress pronouns at the beginning of sentences so as to emphasize on who they’re talking about (moi, toi, lui/elle, nous, vous, eux/elles).
Therefore, you may sometimes hear people say “Nous” and “on” in a row:
If there’s one thing you should remember:
– In an informal situation (most of the time), you can use “on”.
– In a formal situation, you should use “nous”.
Of course, if you prefer, you could use “nous” all the time. Don’t feel like you absolutely need to use “on” when you speak, people will understand you. But that’s how the French speak every day, so it depends on you if you want to sound French as much as possible or not ^^