On: a little word with a big role in French

One might, at first glance, think the French on is a straight translation of “one” in English. But on is much more widely used, generally less formal and much more versatile.

So versatile, in fact, that it can (in theory) be used to replace any of the other French pronouns: I/we, you, he/she/it or they.

On y va? The most frequent use of on is as a straight swap for nous in speech. For beginners, on can come to your rescue if you cannot remember how to conjugate a particular verb with nous. However, in writing, you still need to remember to put agreements on the end of words – for example, on est jeunes (we are young, with a plural S).

On is also commonly used to refer to persons unknown – on nous a obligé à… we had to do something – and where a passive would be used in English: on dit que (it is said that). You might even see it as an instruction on signs: On est prié de fermer la porte – please shut the door – or even in recipe books: On ajoute le bouillon. Add in the stock.

Less commonly, it can be used to replace tu or vous – although it can sound pejorative: On a oublié quelque chose? Has a certain someone (you) forgotten something? A wedding anniversary, perhaps.

Even rarer is on to mean I, as in “one is not amused”, which sounds vain – but can in some cases be interpreted as a form of modesty. “Comme on vous aime” could be a more subtle I-love-you. Academics sometimes use the on (or nous) ‘de modestie’ to add some distance to their findings and avoid talking about themselves.

For phonetic reasons, on is sometimes preceded by l’ to make an easier liaison with words such as et, si and ou. “Si l’on est en avance, on fera une pause” (if we’re early we’ll stop somewhere).

One way or another, one will find on to be a very useful tool to have when one is speaking French.

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