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My son is doing online assignments for class which consist of turning very simple English snippets into French. I'm trying to help out but, since I haven't done French myself for forty-odd years, I'm struggling.

The online assignment is asking for the translation of "we like; they like" which is tripping me up, despite aimer being a regular verb, which is supposed to be easy :-)

It appears that this is either 1st or 3rd person plural, which would be nous aimons or ils/elles aiment, based on the French guide we have.

Yet the test is insisting it's on aime. Why is this so? Google Translate state that both on and nous translate to "we" and I don't understand the distinction. And, if they do both mean "we", why is it on aime (1st/3rd singular) rather than on aimons?

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Using 'on' as the first person plural has become very common in spoken French, so common that you would be hard pressed to find anyone actually using 'nous' in conversation.

'Nous' is still however very present in written French, for example in story telling or official documents.

In summary: there is no distinction in meaning, just in formality.

  • So, if it's first person plural, why not "on aimons"? – user12859 Feb 13 '17 at 12:07
  • @paxdiablo: "on" is singular, even if it often refers to an undefined group of persons. It may be translated to the English "some", like in "Some like it hot". – Graffito Feb 13 '17 at 12:29
  • I don't know the reason but "on" is a third person singular pronoun : je, tu, il/elle/on, nous, vous, ils/elles. Note that "on" instead of "we" is just one meaning (informal), there are others: anglaisfacile.com/exercices/exercice-anglais-2/… – Destal Feb 13 '17 at 12:29
  • Oh, and if it's in the meaning of "we", the adjective agrees: "on est contents de notre nouvelle voiture". But if it's in the meaning of "one", it doesn't: "on est content quand on achète une nouvelle voiture". – Destal Feb 13 '17 at 12:33
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    @Graffit, that actually makes sense as in why they ask for "we like; they like". I (in my literal OCD ways) would just use nous aimons; ils aiment. But the vague-ish "we/they like" is probably better in English as "some like", hence (as per Teleporting Goat's answer that on conjugates like il) on aime. I think I'm going to have to relearn a bit to help my son out but you bods have been a great help. – user12859 Feb 13 '17 at 13:36
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I think the website is a little too strict, if they ask for "we like" they should accept both "Nous aimons" and "On aime". If I were a teacher and I could only use one valid answer, I would put "Nous aimons". Honestly I don't understand why the test would be like that, but it's probably consistent with the lessons before the test.

That being said, in spoken language, we use "on" much more than "nous". It's convenient because it conjugates like il/elle, which is often the shortest and easiest conjugation.

Be careful though, when nous is the subject you can always use on instead, but the opposite is not true.

  • Okay, that little snippet (on conjugating like il/elle) is very good to know - it explains why it's on aime. – user12859 Feb 13 '17 at 13:30
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The assignment was probably asking for a single sentence that was translating both "we like" and "they like”.

If this is the case, there is no other way than use on aime (or better on aime bien.)

On has essentially replaced the first person plural in spoken French but it can also replace all persons, singular and plural, depending on the context.

[Nous,] on aime s'amuser. → We like to have fun.

Alors, on aime s'amuser ? → So, you like to have fun ?

Ici, on aime s'amuser. → Here, we/they like to have fun.

On is always conjugated as third person singular because it originally means homme:

Homme aime s'amuser → Man likes to have fun.

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