Updated: Sep 7, 2020
The pronoun "on" is a subject pronoun (it replaces a noun).
It is a third person singular pronoun (je; tu; il/elle/on; nous; vous; ils/elles) and therefore, verbs following "on" are conjugated the same way as verbs in the "il or elle" form.
However, the pronoun "on" is used as 'we' in modern spoken French.
It can also mean: one, you, they/ people/ someone.
Let's have a look at these different meanings!
1. "on" as an indefinite pronoun
The use of 'on' as an indefinite pronoun is very similar to the use of 'one' in English.
It is a gender-neutral, third person singular pronoun.
This pronoun is used when talking about people in general.
Example: Dans les Alpes on peut skier. In the Alps, one can ski.
You will note that in today's spoken English, you tend to say: you can ski.
This is the reason why "on" can also be translated as 'you' in English.
Therefore, when translating a sentence with 'you', you should always ask yourself the question: Are we talking about people in general (anyone can ski) or are we talking to one person in particular?
If we are talking about people in general, you need to use "on".
If we are talking to one person in particular, you need to use "tu" or "vous".
2. "on" for someone/ people or they
The pronoun "on" can refer to a person or to people whose identity is not really known or not really important.
On dit que la première année de mariage est la plus difficile.
People say that the first year of marriage is the most difficult.
On n'en fabrique plus.
They don't make them anymore.
On m'a dit que tu étais malade.
Someone told me you were ill.
3. "on" as an equivalent for "nous"
The use of "on" instead of "nous" is very frequent in modern spoken French.
Even though the subject pronoun refers to a group of people, the verb is conjugated in the third person of the singular.
On a une fille qui habite à Londres.
We have a daughter who lives in London.
On est heureux.
We are happy.
You can't use the singular verb form without including the "on".
You can say: ma sœur et moi mangeons ensemble for nous mangeons ensemble
BUT YOU CAN'T SAY: "ma sœur et moi mange ensemble" for on mange ensemble.
Although it is not uncommon for French people to add the extra on in order to make it work: "Ma et sœur et moi, on mange ensemble." it is not correct French and you should always use the nous form of the verb with " ..x.. et moi".
Keep on reading if you want to know more
When "on" is used as an equivalent for "nous", many writers make any adjectives or past participles agree to show the plural.
In textbooks, you will see:
On est allés en vacances. We went on holidays.
On est fatigués. We are tired.
However, not all native speakers agree with this rule. They consider that adjectives and past participles should show a masculine singular agreement. You could be told either depending on who teaches you.
4. "on" as an alternative to the English passive voice
This is where things get tricky for learners.
The passive form is sometimes not possible in French. In this instance, "on" is used instead.
For example, with the sentence: You were asked to come here
You can't say: "Tu as été demandé de venir ici".
Instead, you have to say: On t'a demandé de venir ici.
So... how do you know when to use "on" instead of the passive voice?
The short answer is: An indirect object cannot become the grammatical subject of a sentence in the passive voice.
This sounds very complicated...
To really understand this concept, you need to know about the passive voice, direct and indirect objects. But here is a quick explanation.
In the sentence:
Il a volé ma voiture. He stole my car.
Il is the subject and ma voiture is the direct object.
You can use the passive voice, where the object becomes the grammatical subject:
Ma voiture a été volée. My car was stolen
In the sentence:
Il nous a donné une télévision. He gave us a TV.
Il is the subject, une télévision is the direct object and nous is the indirect object.
Again, you can use the passive voice where the object becomes the grammatical subject:
Une télévision nous a été donnée. A TV was given to us.
BUT, you can't make the indirect object become the grammatical subject.
Therefore to say: We were given a TV, you can't write "Nous avons été donné une télévision".
You have to use "on" instead: On nous a donné une télévision.
5. The use of "l'on"
As mentioned before, "on" is used a lot in spoken French, but it can also be used in written French. In this instance, "l'on" is often used instead of "on" when it follows a word ending in a vowel. It is not compulsory and "on" can still be used and is still correct. The added "l'" brings nothing to the sentence except for making "on" sound a little bit more formal.
Comment peut-on savoir si on ne demande pas.
Becomes: Comment peut-on savoir si l'on ne demande pas.
"l'on" is especially used when it follows "que". This is to avoid "qu'on", which sounds like "con" ( a rude word). Not something you want to say in formal situations.
French people will avoid using "l'on" if the next word starts with the letter "l" .
For example: "Tout est possible si l'on le veut vraiment" sounds a bit funny and "l'on" will revert to "on": Tout est possible si on le veut vraiment.
Mistake to avoid
Because on est and on n'est (pas) sound the same (due to the liaison), it is common for people to forget to write the n' in negative sentences. So watch out for this common error!
So much to know for such a little word!
For French A Level students with any exam board:
This workbook is excellent to practise all the grammar you need to know in the first year of your A-level course.
For French GCSE students with any exam board:
The handbook on the left gives you easy to understand descriptions and rules for all the grammar aspects you need to know at GCSE level. The workbook on the right contains a series of activities to help you practise these aspects. Answers are provided at the back so you can check your work.
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