`On` in French – Why and How to Use it
The French language is one of the most intricate, so it’s no surprise that such a teeny tiny word like ‘on’ could be used in so many different ways.
First of all, when we take a look at modern French, ‘On’ usually translates into ‘we’. In this case, it’s important to remember that the verb following on takes the conjugated il form.
On croit au recyclage du plastique (We believe in plastic recycling)
On vit dans une péniche(We live in a boat house)
Both verbs croit (infinitive: croire) and vit (infinitive: vivre) are in the il form even though both sentences concern multiple people (ie ‘we’).
In certain scenarios, you will find that the subject pronoun nous is used instead of on. This generally happens in more formal situations though, like during a politician’s debate or in the writing of official papers; basically it comes in handy if you need to sound smart and sophisticated. But otherwise, on is predominantly used in everyday situations, and you will come across it time and time again in your journey of learning French.
That being said, on can prove to be tricky and its rules of use can be somewhat confusing, but it’s nothing our quick and easy guide can’t fix!
Let’s dig in shall we?
When it comes to spoken French, ‘On’ can often go unheard since it’s a very nasal sound. You can try pronouncing it by making an ‘o’ shape with your lips, and pushing the air up to the nasal cavity where it will echo and produce the desired sound. It’s not a word that’s ever really emphasised in French, with the exception of when you find it placed in front of a vowel and in front of words beginning with a silent ‘h’.
on est (we are) will phonetically sound like oneh
on aime (we like) will phonetically sound like on-eh-meuh
on hésite (we hesitate) will phonetically sound like on-eh-zeet
This exception might be hard to remember at first, but it’ll come to you naturally the more you practice and the more you immerse yourself in the language.
2. Negative On
When it comes to writing in the negative form, it’s important to take a look at how on can cause problems. As mentioned, on ‘s pronunciation only differs when it’s placed in front of a word beginning with a vowel or beginning with a silent ‘h’. This can cause confusion between an affirmative and a negative sentence.
Note: When on is used in a negative form sentence, it will always be followed by an n’ , and you’ll also always be able to spot pas after the verb.
on est anglais (We are English) -> affirmative sentence and on est is pronounced oneh
on n’est pas anglais (We are not English) -> negative sentence and on n’est is also pronounced oneh
As you can see this is a very easy and understandable mistake to make, as they both sound exactly the same even if they’re written differently. You want to make sure to remember to include the n’ and the pas in the negative form to avoid making the (very common!) mistake in a sentence such as On est pas anglais. (the pas is there but the n’ is missing!)
3. On Used for Talking About People in General
Let’s take a look at an example:
Au Canada, on aime bien jouer au hockey
(In Canada, people love to play hockey)
Here, on = multiple people in general
4. On Substitutes ‘Someone’
Entre quand on te le demande (Come in when we ask you to)
Here, on = a singular person
5. On Used for One
In this case, on would serve as an impersonal subject pronoun. It’s not often that you’ll come across it used this way as you’ll find that nous and il are preferred, but it’s still useful to keep in mind.
On devrait être fidèle à soi-même (One should be true to oneself)
Here, on = one
6. On Used For Que l’on or Qu’on
French being particular about its own melody when spoken, you’ll come across instances when an L’ is placed right before on. This is especially when it comes to sentences that include the word que followed by on, which has then been shortened to qu’on . Due to the identical pronunciation of qu’on and a rather vulgar French cuss word, qu’on is written as que l’on instead.
C’est le meilleur des bonbons que l’on ait eu (It’s the best candy we’ve had)
However, don’t be surprised if you hear natives use qu’on in every day conversations; the French are very much desensitised from it by now. That being said, it’s best to memorise how to use que l’on instead, but it’s still good to keep in mind that qu’on is also widely used too, especially in conversational French.
7. On Used In The Passive Voice
When a sentence is written in the passive voice, on can be used.
On lui a parlé du monstre (We told her about the monster)
On a été découvert (We were discovered)
8. On ‘s Adjective Agreements
Depending on the context, the adjective will need to be adjusted accordingly in a sentence where on is used. You can do this by determining what on represents:
If you’re talking about a universal truth or known fact, the gender is maintained and not changed.
On est jolie quand on est enceinte (One is pretty when one is pregnant)
Here, we know that only women get pregnant therefore the adjective’s gender remains feminine.
If On is substituting Nous, the adjective will be in plural form. The gender will depend on what On is replacing.
On est canadiens (We are Canadians) -> here we’re talking about more than one Canadian man
On est canadiennes (We are Canadians) -> here we’re talking about more than one Canadian woman
If ‘On’ is substituting you/one/people, then the adjective is usually masculine.
Quand on a soif, on boit (When one is thirsty, one drinks)
Quand on est fatigué, il faut se coucher. (When one is tired, one needs to sleep)
9. The Purpose Of Adding An L’
Even though adding an l’ before the on serves no real grammatical purpose, it exists in order to avoid a vowel clash and to make sentences flow a little better. The trick is to look out for the words qui, si, ou, quoi, et and où. L’on will usually follow.
Qui l’on prend would be correct and not Qui on prend (Who we take)
On laisse tomber would be correct and not L’on laisse tomber (We let it go)
10. Common Mistakes
Before finishing up, let’s quickly go over some of the common mistakes to avoid:
- When on is being used as a subject pronoun, it’s essential to remember that it’s followed by a verb that only takes the il form. It’ll always be on lit or on fait and never on lisez or on faisons even when on is replacing nous
- On always represents a living being or an action conducted by a human. It’s never a substitute for an idea or a thing. Basically, On shouldn’t be translated into ‘it’ in English.
And there you have it – everything there is to know about on ! We hope this guide has helped clear up any confusion you may have had, and don’t hesitate to try out our quiz below to put your knowledge to the test. See you next lesson!