French Language Blog

French Grammar: How to Use the Pronoun “On” Posted by on Aug 13, 2012 in Grammar, Vocabulary

It’s time to turn French Grammar “ON” again here on the Transparent French Blog!

And what a coincidence it is, because today you’ll be given a few precious pointers as to how to use the indefinite French pronounOn“, which, as we know very well, can often cause some serious headache to the débutants learners of the French language.

The first English word that should come right away to your mind about the French “on” is “one“, as in the expression “on ne sait jamais” (“One never knows.”)

The French pronoun “on” can be used to refer to a person or to entities that are unknown to the speaker. For example, you can say: “On dit que…” (“It is said that…”, in the sense of “rumor has it that…”)

Or “On vous a envoyé un bouquet de fleurs” (“Someone sent you a bouquet of flowers.”)

Another usage of on in French is the equivalent of la voix passive (passive voice.)

Informally, “on” can be used as a synonym of “nous (“we”):

Je sens qu’on va beaucoup s’amuser” (“I feel like we’re going to have a lot of fun.”)

When it’s used in the meaning of “nous” in writing, usually the adjectives and past participles have to agree in gender and number with the referred people.

 For example, if you want to say “We are very happy about the results of our team”, you write: “On est très contents des resultats de notre équipe

Again, this is only if you mean to be informal in your writing, such as in an SMS or a Facebook chat for example.

Aside from “nous“, “on” can be used instead of other persons. For example, if you don’t want to say “tu” or “vous“, you can say “on” instead: “Je vois qu’on a encore oublié de faire ses devoirs“, in the sense of “I see that [someone/some people] once again forgot to do their homework…”

Finally, in formal style, “on” is often written with an “l’“, as in “l’on“, which can be regarded as more elegant than just “on” by itself.

In her “Notre-Dame de Paris“, Édith Piaf sings:

Dans le jardin de Notre-Dame

In the garden of Notre-Dame

l’on se fait de bons amis

Where one makes good friends.”

More on French pronouns here on the Transparent French Blog:

Quickly Become a “French Pro” of “les PRONOMS” (Pronouns)

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  1. Grant Benga:

    send more of these to my email please each time. I need these grammar lessons Keep up the good work!

  2. Kanchi:

    What does ‘One est Etudiant” mean??

    I’m studying French and there’s no meaning given in my book. I understand on est mean we are and the whole sentence can somewhat mean we are students. But there’s no article before etudiant and neither its plural.

  3. Janet Aldrich:

    “L’on” is used in place of on “on” after “que” — to avoid “qu’on” (which can come out sounding like “con”. Ayoyé.)

  4. Sanjiv Hubert:

    Thank you for the information, it was useful for my son who learns French at school.

  5. Barry:

    You’ve done a great explaination of *on*

  6. winifred:

    Very helpful. Merci beaucoup.