Have you seen or heard the French pronoun on? Do you wonder what does on mean in French, or when and why we use this unique pronoun? And what about nous vs on: what’s the best way to say we in French?
Technically, the French pronoun nous means we. In written French, the pronoun nous is almost always used for we. However, in informal spoken French, the pronoun on is frequently used. On also has several other uses as an impersonal pronoun.
This post will start with how and when to use the French pronoun on. Then we’ll focus on when to use nous vs on for we in French, including rules for conjugation and adjective agreement. Let’s get started!
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How to use On in French
On is one of the third-person singular French subject pronouns. Technically, the pronoun on in French means one. It is considered an impersonal subject pronoun, used when the subject of a sentence is not a specific person.
- On peut facilement se perdre dans les ruelles de Marrakech. – One can easily get lost in the alleyways of Marrakech.
- En France, on doit adorer le foot. – In France, one must love soccer.
For an English speaker, expressions using one often sound slightly awkward. For French speakers though, they sound quite natural. Since expressions using one as a subject pronoun are fairly unusual in English, it’s common for English speakers to translate on to one of the more commonly-used subject pronouns: typically we, but sometimes you, they, or even someone, anyone, everyone, or just people.
The French pronoun on should be thought of as a collective we or they. Anytime we describe a group of people in general, we prefer to use the pronoun on. Let’s see this with a couple of examples:
- En France, on célèbre la Fête Nationale le 14 juillet. – In France, we celebrate the National Holiday on July 14th.
- Aux Etats-Unis, on célèbre le jour de l’indépendance le 4 juillet. – In the United States, they celebrate Independence Day on July 4th.
In the first statement, since I am also French, I include myself among this group who celebrates, so we is the best translation. In this case, on refers to French people in general and that includes me!
In the second statement, I am talking about Americans in general. Since I am French, I am not included in this group, so they is a better translation. Unless, of course, I travel to the United States and celebrate the 4th of July with some Americans!
On can be used to talk about any group of people. In these next examples, on is referring to Italians as a group. The English translations differ depending on the context:
- On bouge beaucoup les mains quand on parle en Italie. – People move their hands a lot when they speak in Italy.
- Nous, les Italiens ? On communique autant avec nos gestes ! – We Italians? We communicate as much with our gestures!
On can also serve to replace someone, to refer to some indeterminate person.
- On a frappé à la porte il y a quelques minutes. – Someone knocked on the door a few minutes ago.
- Le 3 septembre, on a volé le diamant rose du musée. – The 3rd of September, someone stole the pink diamond from the museum.
We can use on to make general statements. This use of on in French is often translated using the subject pronoun you in English, though other options also exist:
- On peut louer une voiture à l’aéroport. – You can rent a car at the airport. – It’s possible to rent a car at the airport.
- En safari, on peut voir des lions et des elephants. – On a safari, you can see lions and elephants. – On a safari, one can see lions and elephants.
When speaking informally, on can be used anytime as we in French, rather than nous. This use of the French pronoun on as we is extremely common!
- On a mangé au resto hier. – We ate at the restaurant yesterday.
- On n’a plus de papier toilette ! – We have no more toilet paper!
- On y va ! – Let’s go!
Regarding that last example, we have an entire post on different ways to say let’s go in French!
The difference between On and Nous
As you can see, the French pronoun on is quite versatile, and commonly used in many different situations. And since one of the most common contexts where one uses on in French is when we mean we, you’re probably wondering the difference between on and nous for saying we in French. Especially since, technically, nous is the sole second-person plural French subject pronoun that translates directly as we.
Building on our explanations of how to use on in French, let’s focus specifically on when we use the French on meaning we. In short, when do we use nous vs on?
If you follow these simple guidelines you will usually get it right:
When to use Nous as We in French
- In writing
- Speaking in formal situations
When to use On as We in French
- Speaking informally with friends and family
- Referring to a group of people collectively
Nous vs On: Summary
In France, we use on for we all the time. In fact, some estimates say that in casual conversation, native speakers opt for on instead of nous 95% of the time when saying we in French.
Considering the fact that on can also refer to they, you, someone, or any collective group of people, it has the potential to be the most frequently used subject pronoun of all. On utilise énormément ce pronom ! – We use this pronoun a whole lot!
Nous remains the version of we in French that is always grammatically correct, which is used almost exclusively in writing, and which is preferred in formal contexts. Just don’t expect to hear it too much when speaking.
English speakers might find our overreliance on the subject pronoun on to be a bit lazy. Yet it works well for us, and many English speakers adopt our use of the collective pronoun one as they become more comfortable with the French language. One can’t help it!
How to conjugate On in French
As far as grammar goes, using the pronoun on is pretty simple. It is always considered as a third-person singular pronoun when it is conjugated. This means it gets the same verb conjugations as il or elle, regardless of how many people it’s referring to.
- Il a un petit chien. On a un chien plus grand. – He has a little dog. We have a bigger dog.
- Elle porte des vêtements traditionnels bhutanais. On porte des vêtements traditionnels au Bhutan. – She wears traditional Bhutanese clothes. They wear traditional clothes in Bhutan.
So even though on can refer to we or they, it always is conjugated as a singular subject. However, when the meaning of on is assumed to be plural, the adjectives in French will also be plural. Likewise for any object pronouns: when on is used as we, the corresponding object pronoun is always nous.
- On est tous contents d’ouvrir nos cadeaux. Merci de nous avoir donné autant de cadeaux ! – We are all happy to open our presents. Thank you for having given us so many presents!
- Allez les filles ! On est prêtes ou pas ? Nos copains nous attendent. – Let’s go girls! Are we ready or not? Our boyfriends are waiting for us.
In this last example, the possessive adjective nos is in plural and the adjective prêtes is in feminine plural, since on as we refers to a group of women. In the first example we can tell that on as we refers to a mixed or all-male group, since the adjective is contents rather than contentes.
For an in-depth post on conjugation, including explanations of the grammatical persons we’ve been referring to, check out our detailed post on French verb conjugation.
Conclusion: The pronoun On, and Nous vs On for We in French
This post’s focus started with the various uses of the French pronoun on, and then went through the differences between on vs nous where they’re used as we in French. Let’s do a quick recap of what we’ve learned.
The Frech pronoun on is ubiquitous in spoken French. When used to refer to a group of people that includes the speaker, it is by far the most common word for we in French. Nous is nonetheless perfectly correct, and remains the preferred word for we in written French as well as in formal situations when speaking.
Nous has its own second-person plural conjugations, whereas on is always conjugated in third-person singular. Even though it’s conjugated in the singular, however, on can still trigger plural endings on any adjectives that refer back to it when it’s used as a plural we.
On also serves as an impersonal third-person singular pronoun, used generally to refer to some unspecified person. The formal translation of this use of the French on in English is one, though equivalents can vary depending on the context. Other possible English translations for this use of on in French include you, they, we, someone, or other indefinite references to people along these same lines.
Et voilà ! Avec ça, on a fini d’apprendre sur on et nous ! – There we have it! With that, we have finished learning about on and nous!