The Different Meanings of the French Subject Pronoun On

The French pronoun On generally meansWe in English. However, it can also refer to one, people, you, they, he or she, and even I. Therefore, it is not easy to understand how to use this pronoun and to translate it into English.

The key to understanding the use of on is to rely on the context.  

Here are some clear explanations and example sentences to help you.

1. On means We

You probably learned in French school that “on” meant ‘one’ in English. And it’s true.

However, in modern spoken French, “on” is almost always used instead of “nous”. 

“On” – Examples

So, let me use “on” in some simple sentences, to describe my life.

  1. Daniel et moi, on vit en concubinage.
    Daniel and I, we live together.
  2. On est français et on est aussi américains.
    We are French and we also are American.
  3. On habite à Paris, en France.
    We live in Paris, France.
  4. On est à côté de St-Germain-des-Prés, c’est chouette
    We are close to St-Germain-des-Prés, it’s cool.
  5. On fait du jogging, de la randonnée et de la natation.
    We practice jogging, hiking, and swimming.
What’s the difference between On and Nous?

 “Nous” is nowadays mostly used in formal contexts (politics, academia, etc.), when you are watching your language and selecting the most appropriate register depending on the situation.

2. On For Someone

In the same spirit, “on” can be used instead of someone:

Example : réponds si on te parle – answer if someone speaks to you.

3. On Means People in General, one or they

So, still in this impersonal idea “on” may be translated as “people” or “they”:

  1. En général en France, on mange son hamburger avec une fourchette et un couteau.
    Usually in France, people eat their burger with a fork and a knife.
  2. « Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse on y danse » (famous French song)
    « On the Avignon bridge, people dance, people dance ».
4. On is Used Instead of the Passive Voice

“On” is often used in French where English would used a passive voice. Again, the subject is not clear: it’s a person, but no-one in particular.

Here are some examples:

  1. On m’a dit de lui parler – I was told to talk to him
  2. On lui a demandé de partir  – he was asked to leave
  3. On a trouvé une lettre – a letter was found
  4. Ici on parle anglais – English is spoken here
5. Adjective Agreements with On

Ok, so the verb is an “il” form.

What about the agreement with the adjective?

Here, the only thing that matters here is the context. You need to think about what “on” means, who it replaces. Then make the adjective agree with this meaning.

  1. When “on” means “nous”, the adjective will be plural
    That is a sure thing. It may be plural masculine or feminine, depending on who “on” replaces.
    (Olivier and Camille) = On est américains (with an S)
    (Camille and Leyla) = On est américaines (with an E and an S)
  2. When “on” means “one / people / you” it’s usually masculine
    As always in French, when in doubt, go for masculine.
    Quand on est malade, on est fatigué.
Café et croissant
6. On in the Negative = Don’t Forget the negation (n’ or ne… pas)

Examples :

  • on est français.
  • on n’est pas français.
7. On instead of Je

Only in very specific cases, we use “on” in a bit of an ironic way to replace “je”. You can easily imagine someone saying:

  • J’ai mal au dos, mais je pense que ça ira mieux demain…On verra bien demain !
    My back hurt but I think it will have improved tomorrow… I’ll see tomorrow!

In this specific context, I was only talking about myself. I’m using a “we” form but really meaning “I”…

8. On Means You

You in a General Sense

I’m not talking about “you” as the person standing in front of me. I’m talking about a “you” used in a general meaning, more as in “people”, or “one”, but actually like we would use it today…

Imagine you are talking to a little girl. It’s unlikely you’d say: “when one is sick, one is tired”… you may say “when people are sick, people are tired”, or even “when you’re sick, you’re tired”: talking about her but also the everybody else: a general truth. In French, you’d use “on” there.

  • Quand on est malade, on est fatigué – when you’re sick, you’re tired (you = general people)
9. You in a Personal Sense

But you could also imagine “on” being used for one person in particular. It’s kind of an emphasis, a way to “mock” someone.

  • Alors, Pierre ?  On fait le malin ? On trouve ça amusant de faire rire ses petits camarades ?
    So, Peter? You’re the smart guy? You find it amusing to have your class mates laughing?
10. The pronoun On in French can be used to replace He or She

Now, in French restaurants and boutiques, you’ll often hear people use “on” instead of “you”.

  • Qu’est-ce qui vous ferait plaisir aujourd’hui? On va prendre un café-crème, comme d’habitude ?
    What would make you happy today? You’ll have a coffee with milk, as usual?

However, you should keep in mind that this form is colloquial and that it’s mostly used in spoken contexts.

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