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`On` in French – Why and How to Use it

As comes with the intricacy of French language, the word ‘On’ also has many meanings attached to it. The word has traditional meanings such as ‘one’, ‘you’, ‘he/she’, ‘I’, ‘they’, and so on.

We have created a Quiz, which is at the end of this article, so that you can test your knowledge on On in French → OK take me to the Quiz!

However, if we observe modern French then translation of ‘On’ is usually ‘we’. The second aspect is that it always substitutes the very form of ‘Il’.

Example:
On croit au recyclage du plastique (We believe in plastic recycling)
On vit dans une péniche(We live in a boat house)

In writing, it’s possible to eliminate the need of ‘On’ and use other subject pronouns like nous. The latter happens mostly because formal writing, usually to sound ‘intellectual’ makes use of nous. So, you’d see politicians or researchers saying ‘Nous’ instead of ‘On’. But when it comes to speech, often the word feels omitted since linguistically it’s a nasal sound. Furthermore, the order that it is employed in depends on the context.

So, how do you really identify its presence? After going through the guide below, you’ll be able to gage some idea on how this impersonal subject pronoun is used as well as some generic knowledge of the same.

1. Pronunciation

As mentioned, ‘On’ is a nasal sound implying that the lips are shaped like an ‘o’. When the word is said, air is blocked such that it echoes within the nasal cavity. Other than it sounds almost silent, the second issue is its connection with the letter ‘N’.

So, on est will sound like on nait.

This is purely based on memory of how ‘On’ is used so get those workbooks out and start practising!

2. Negative On

Sometimes when it comes to writing negative, it’s possible that due to the connection or liaison with ‘N’ (read the point above), the sentence can be written wrong.
So,

Affirmative: on est anglais (I am English)
Negative: on n’est pas anglais  (I am not English)
Common Mistake: on est pas anglais

3. On Used for Talking About People in General

As the statement says, let’s look at an example.

Example:
Au Canada, on aime bine hoye au hockey
(In Canada, people love to play hockey)

4. On Substitutes ‘Someone’

Example:
Entre quand on te le demande (Come in, when we ask you to)

5. On Used For Passive Voice

Whenever English has the possibility of sentences written in passive voice then ‘On’ can be used instead in French.

Example:
On lui a parlé du monstre (She was told about the monster)
On a été découvert (We were discovered)

6. On with Adjective Agreement

Depending on the context, the adjectives need to be adjusted. This is seen through determining the meaning of ‘On’.

  • Some contexts maintain gender since it could be universal truth or a fact.

Example:
On est jolie quand on est enceinte (One is pretty when one is pregnant)

  • If ‘On’ is substituting ‘Nous’, then the adjective used will be in plural form with the gender dependant on what ‘On’ has replaced.

Example:
On est populaire (We are popular)

  • If ‘On’ is substituting you/one/people, then the adjective is usually masculine.

Example:
Quand on a soif, on boit (When one is thirsty, one drinks)

7. On Used for One

Here, the usage is for the purpose of impersonal subject pronoun. Even though this has become rare, let’s go through an example for instances that you might need it. Who knows it might make you seem knowledgeable in that situation? Presently, ‘Nous’ and ‘Il’ are mostly used in its place though.

Example:
On devrait être fidèle à soi-même (One should be true to oneself)

8. On Used For Que l’on or Qu’on

French being particular about the melody of the language when spoken and it’s meaning, added L’ before ‘On’ especially when it comes to Qu’ on. Due to its pronunciation similarity with a vulgar word, it’s written as Que l’on instead.

Example:
C’est le meilleur des bonbons que l’on ait eu (It’s the best candy we’ve had)

Presently, qu’on is more commonly used.

9. Purpose of Adding L’

Even though l before the ‘on’ has no meaning, in order to avoid vowel clash and have a soft sound, the addition is done. The hint is to look for words like qui’, ‘si’, ‘ou’, ‘quoi, ‘et’ and . L’on usually follows these words. With practise, this will become a reflex answer depending on the sound your French ear has trained to hear.

Example:
Qui l’on prend and not Qui on prend

Similarly,

On laisse tomber and not L’on laisse tomber (we’ll let it go)

10. Common Mistakes

Before signing off, let’s look at avoiding some common mistakes.

When ‘On’ is being used as a subject pronoun, it’s essential to remember that it takes the verb form of only ‘il. So, it will be ‘on lit, on fait’ and never ‘on lisez’ or ‘on faisons’, even if ‘On’ is replacing nous.

On’ always replaces a living being or an action conducted by a human. It never substitutes an idea. Basically, this means that ‘On’ shouldn’t be translated to ‘it’ in English.

Hopefully, you have been able to understand the term better and impress others with the meticulous use of ‘On’. See you next chapter!

Quiz: Test your knowledge of French Pronoun On!

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, `On` in French – Why and How to Use it

French Pronoun On

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Which of the following could this sentence mean? «Monsieur, on ne peut pas fumer ici»

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How can you say “We have a house in the suburbs.”?

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How can you say "We have three children.”?

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