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On : usage

Keys to using the French pronoun “on” successfully

by | 20 Apr 2016 | French Language


To start with, you decided to learn French. You learnt your first few words and very quickly, you were taught the pronoun “on“. You were told when and how to use it but many of you still have doubts about the different meanings it can have and wonder if it can be safely used in writing and if you should make adjectives and past participles agree with it or not… In short, many of you still have quite a number of questions in store and would like to know more about this little word on!

So, who is on? What does this pronoun mean? First of all, let’s remember that on is always a subject in a sentence.

In everyday French and especially when speaking, on is very often used instead of the pronoun nous (we):

  • Vous êtes prêts, les enfants ? On peut partir ? → Nous pouvons partir ? (Are you ready, children? Shall we go?)
  • Vous êtes arrivés à quelle heure ? – À 9 heures, on voulait arriver plus tôt, mais on a pris du retard sur la route à cause de la circulation → Nous voulions arriver plus tôt, mais nous avons pris du retard… (What time did you arrive? – At 9. We wanted to get here earlier but we were caught up in traffic.)

These examples show how you can replace the personal pronoun nous. Nous is a plural pronoun but on is singular and you conjugate it exactly in the same way as with il or elle (he or she).

  • Nous avons soif → On a soif (We are thirsty)
  • Nous sommes fatigués → On est fatigués (We are tired)

Have you noticed an odd detail? On is singular, but “fatigués” has a plural ending. In theory, you have the choice: some grammar books will tell you that when on is used to mean nous, the verb is always singular, but the adjective or the past participle that goes with it can be either singular or plural.

The verb must indeed always be in the singular form. However, in practice, I recommend all my students to make the agreement (feminine/masculine and singular/plural).

Why? Well, simply because the French actually spontaneously make the agreement when they speak. Most of the time, you cannot hear the difference. For instance, whether we say fatigué, fatigués or fatiguées, the pronunciation is exactly the same. On the other hand, if we choose another example such as “surpris”, then there will be a difference in pronunciation. Let’s imagine two sisters who find out that for once, their brother got up on time for school. They will say “On est surprises”. You will never hear girls or women talking about themselves say “surpris” (without the agreement, it sounds masculine!)

Still, let’s point out that on is generally used instead of nous when we speak. When we write, it is usually recommended to stick with nous. Yet, you may have already noticed that the written language is changing rather swiftly, probably all the more with the unprecedented outburst of written content stemming from forums, blogs, emails, texts, web pages, social networks etc. Such a change has witnessed a constant increase in the use of the word on to mean nous. As a consequence, I’d say on can also be used in writing to replace the pronoun nous, but not in a more formal or official style.

Should you have to write a mail or an email to a supplier or a client, when you mention your company, you should use nous and must absolutely avoid on. For example, you can write:
Nous sommes heureux de vous informer que votre commande est prête…, not “on est heureux de vous informer…” (We are pleased to let you know that your order is ready…)

Also remember that on can also be used instead of the personal pronouns tu, vous and je–although more rarely so for je. In this case, follow the same agreement rules: make the adjective or the past participle agree in gender (masculine/feminine) and in number (singular/plural). Here are a few examples:

  • Alors Élise, tu as bien dormi, tu t’es bien reposée ?→ Alors Élise, on a bien dormi, on est bien reposée ? (So, Elise, did you have a good sleep, did you have a good rest?)
  • Bien, vous êtes prêts pour l’examen ? → Bien, on est prêts pour l’examen ? (Right, are you ready for the exam?)
  • J’ai préparé une expérience scientifique ; je noterai les résultats plus tard. → On a préparé une expérience scientifique ; ensuite on notera les résultats. (I prepared an experiment ; I will make a note of the effects later)

can also have other meanings. Every time it does not mean nous, vous, tu or je, it is always singular and the adjective or past participle will remain in the singular form.

On can mean people (“les gens“) in general, somebody (an unspecified person, anybody), unspecified persons = some people, or everybody:

  • En général, les gens dorment mieux lorsqu’ils sont fatigués. → En général, on dort mieux lorqu’on est fatigué. (People usually sleep better when they are tired)
  • Tiens, quelqu’un a sonné ! Tu veux bien aller ouvrir la porte et voir qui c’est ? →Tiens, on a sonné ! Tu veux bien aller ouvrir la porte et voir qui c’est ? (Oh, somebody rang the bell! Can you open the door and see who’s there?
  • Il y a une bonne ambiance ce soir ici, des personnes s’amusent bien apparemment → Il y a une bonne ambiance ce soir ici, on s’amuse bien apparemment. (The atmosphere is great in here tonight, it seems some people are enjoying themselves)
  • Tout le monde veut être heureux. –> On veut (tous) être heureux. (Everybody want to be happy)

Finally, let’s note that after the words et (and), ou (or), où (where), que (that), à qui (who to / to whom) and si (if), you can use l’on instead of on. This avoids pronunciation issues and is more stylish. Careful though, never use l’on at the very beginning of a sentence!

Here you are! You now have the keys for a good understand and usage of on. Let’s close with a French proverb that uses on:

C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron

Literally, it means “It’s by forging that you become a blacksmith”, in other words, we learn by doing. This is equivalent to “Practice makes perfect” : it’s also true for learning a foreign language! 😉


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