The Many Meanings of the French Subject Pronoun On

The French Subject Pronoun On
Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images Pretige

More often than not, the modern uses of the French subject pronoun “on” is a mystery to students of French.

Traditional methods teach that “on” means “one”. But in today’s French, “on” is mostly used instead of “we”. Actually, “we” is becoming more and more formal, used mostly for writing. When speaking, we use “on”.

Here is how “on” works

1. On = 3rd person singular verb (“il”verb form)

The first thing to understand when it comes to “on”, is that no matter its meaning, “on” will ALWAYS take a 3rd person singular verb form, like “il” and “elle”.

On doit, on a, on peut... We must, we have, we can...

2. On = one, people (you)

This is the old explanation for “on”. Honestly, how often do you use the English “one” in a sentence?

So “on” is the “impersonal, the unspecific” subject pronoun, but watch out! It’s not at all the same thing as “it” in English, which refers to a thing or an animal. “On” always refers to a person.

On doit bien chercher - One has to look carefully
On peut louer une voiture - it’s possible to rent a car

In this meaning, you could also translate “on” as “people”, or even “you” - not meaning “you” in particular, but an unspecific “you”... that would be a bit more modern than “one”!

En général, quand on a des enfants, on a une voiture - in general, when people/you have children, people/you have a car.

3. “On = we” in spoken French

Watch out though!

When "on" means "we", the verb is still an “il” form, not a “nous” form.

Olivier et moi, on est contents - Olivier and I, we are happy

NOT Olivier et moi on sommes contents. "On est", never "on sommes".

Using "on" to say "we" is the most common way of saying “we” in French nowadays.

I use it all the time, so do my parents, so it’s very, very much used this way.

“Nous” is more formal, used in writing or in a formal context.

But don't get me wrong, "nous" is very used as well, and you still need to learn to conjugate the "nous" verb form!

4. “On” and the adjective agreements

When “on” means “we”, the adjective, if any, will agree in number and gender with the true meaning of “on”: so it will be plural for sure, feminine or masculine.

On est contents - we are happy
On n’est pas très sportifs - we are not very sporty

When “on” means “one, you, people”, or an unspecific person, it’s usually masculine singular.

Quand on est sportif, on est pas fatigué - when you are sporty, you are not tired.

But you have to be smart, and stay focused on the context. Sometime, this unspecific person could only be feminine...

Quand on est enceinte, on est fatiguée - when you are pregnant, you are tired

How To Train to Understand On?

If you are serious about learning French, I strongly suggest you find a good French learning audio method. Written French and spoken French are like two different languages, and you need audio - and someone who can not only list the grammar points but explain them well - to conquer French. I suggest you take a look at my own French learning method as well as my article on the Best French tools for the self-learning student.

For more about French subject pronouns, I suggest you read my lessons:

- "introduction to French subject pronouns" which will answer questions such as "what is a subject pronoun", "how to figure out the subject in French?" "What does the first person plural mean?" and other useful information for you to understand the grammatical jargon French books and teachers use.

- Singular French subject pronouns for a detailed study of je, tu, il and elle.

Plural French subject pronouns for a detailed study of nous, vous, ils and elles.

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