Is it allowed to say "Quelle heure est-on" instead of "Quelle heure est-il"? What's the difference between these questions?

  • Same thing. "on" is an undefined pronoun which can replace personal pronouns, like "il" here. I personally never heard the "on" version said by anyone around me, always the "il". So I do not think it is grammatically a mistake, more a usage details. espacefrancais.com/le-pronom-indefini-on-lon/… – Nic3500 Jan 26 '18 at 0:04
  • Cela s'emploie pour l'identification du jour : On est vendredi. Je ne sais pas pour les heures. – Luke Sawczak Jan 26 '18 at 13:43

Though in my native Quebec I sometimes hear “On est quelle heure ?” or “Quelle heure on est ?”1 (familiar variations of the structurally more formal — but equally improper — “Quelle heure est-on ?”), it is rather rare, and clearly incorrect, because the proper answer to this would be something like “On est onze heures”, which is unheard of, even in the most grammatically relaxed registers of familiar language.

Therefore, I suggest you learn the proper “Quelle heure est-il ?”, or even the more familiar “Il est quelle heure ?” (with the right tone, so that we understand it’s a question), both of which are asking for an answer of the type “Il est onze heures”, i.e. the proper way of indicating the time in French, even in the remotest areas of the Francophony or in the most familiar versions of the language.

Strangely enough, most if not all other indications of time are following the pattern I just dismissed, i.e. a personal pronoun, usually on or nous, but not necessarily, and if the impersonal version is used, it will generally be through c’est, not il est:

  • On est vendredi — C’est vendredi
  • Nous sommes en janvier — C’est janvier
  • Ils sont déjà demain en Australie — C’est déjà demain en Australie
  • On est en hiver — C’est l’hiver
  • Nous sommes dans l’ère technologique.
  • Que nous soyons au vingt-et-unième siècle n’y change rien.

So I guess the logic of it all is not easy to pinpoint. Maybe learning the recipes is the easiest way around these features of French.

  1. I don't know for sure since I don't personnally use it, but perhaps people sometimes mean to say the phonetically not too far off “Quelle heure a-t-on ?”, which would probably make a little more sense (meaning “What time do we have?”, and hinting at the time we may be “in possession of”, so to say, via some sort of time-telling device such as a clock or a wristwatch).
  • 1
    +1 for discussing cases where “on” can/should/must be used! I think “one/we” can use “on” instead of “nous” in most expressions that use “nous,” such as those you cite discussing/asking about specific dates & even distinct (yet longer than a specific hour/minute) periods of time/history (& those used to ask “How many of us are present?” [On est/Nous sommes combien?]). This is probably explained best by how “on” can replace/is fast replacing the original/more formal “nous” in most instances & not by how “on” can or can’t replace “il” when it’s used impersonally in fixed expressions. (1 of 2) – Papa Poule Jan 26 '18 at 20:39
  • With this “ON can replace NOUS” in mind, I wonder if “est-on” could replace “sommes-nous” in this use of “A quelle heure sommes-nous?” where “heure” seems to stand for “ère/époque”? If it could, the result (A quelle heure est-on?) would certainly resemble the OP's phrase but the presence of that “A” (& the extended meaning of “heure”) would render the resemblance meaningless, imo. – Papa Poule Jan 26 '18 at 20:40
  • C'est works with time too in spoken French C'est quelle heure ? [C'est] deux heures du matin. – jlliagre Jan 26 '18 at 20:46
  • @jlliagre Interesting. I never heard “C'est quelle heure?” and I think I’d find it strange (though it would only be a matter of a short exposure to get used to it, I suppose...). A France-only feature of French? – Pas un clue Nov 13 '20 at 15:12
  • @Pasunclue Not everywhere. It is a regionalism used in Switzerland and a large South-West quarter of France, including Geneva, Lyon, Marseille to the Pyrenees. – jlliagre Nov 13 '20 at 16:40

I thinck it's not correct, bacause it is an impersonal form (forme impersonnelle), as, for exemple "il pleut". You can't say "on pleut" (unless as a kind of joke). The "il" doesn't refer to anyone.


Quelle heure est-t-il ?

is what is taught at school but is somewhat formal and relatively infrequent.

Quelle heure il est ?

is by far the most common way to ask "what time is it?" in spoken French.

A common but regional (Switzerland and large South-Western France) sentence is:

C'est quelle heure ?.

and you might even hear the colloquial and dubious:

On est quelle heure ?

perhaps groaned by someone not fully awoken in the middle of the night, and due to the proximity and confusion with:

On est quel jour ?

On the other hand, the suggested:

*Quelle heure est-on ?

is extremely improbable from French native speakers if only because its formal structure doesn't mix with the informal and offbeat on.

The fact is there is no real flexibility with these kind of sentences. You can't say either:

il est quel jour ? or il est quelle année ?.

I suspect the specificity of il est vs on est might be due to the fact that while we are fully and clearly "into" the space-time of the days, month and years (on est vendredi, on est en janvier, on est en 2018, on est en hiver...), the ephemeral hour was, until a not so distant past, an imprecise and often inaccurate concept. That means we were not really sure to be "at" a specific hour, but only aware that some device like a sundial was suggesting an hour.

We still say:

il est quelle heure à ta montre ?

meaning that is not necessarily the right information.

  • I don't think it's just improbable because tones don't match, "Quelle heure est-on ?" is just not the proper interrogative form, because you don't say "On est 11h", but "Il est 11h". The same way you wouldn't say "Il est mardi" ... – Laurent S. Nov 12 '20 at 16:03
  • @LaurentS. Not just because the tone indeed. My point was quelle heure sommes-nous ? seems to me more acceptable (more precisely less unacceptable) than quelle heure est-on ? – jlliagre Nov 12 '20 at 20:59

TL;DR : It is ok, but why would you?

It depends of what you mean by "allowed".

Is it grammatically correct? Yes. Will that carry the meaning? Sure. But if I hear someone say that, i would assume he's either from Canada or a remote place in France.

It sounds like "Quelle heure fait-il?" for me: it's understandable, yet not the "classic and corect way" of saying it.

  • I am from Canada, and I never heard it either... – Nic3500 Jan 26 '18 at 12:42
  • @Nic3500 Indeed, and I never said people in Canada used it ^^ Check it again: I said my assumption if I heard that would be that you were from those places. Niot because they use it, but because they sometimes have weird formulations that we're unaware of. – Turtle Jan 26 '18 at 13:35

That would be correct in my opinion. But that's really odd to the ear. I wouldn't use it myself, as a native speaker, and would be confused for a millisecond if anyone were to ask me that way.

Now if you really think about it, and had to use a more uncommon sentence construction, such as:

Est-il tard ?

I don't think you'd be able to replace it with "on". That wouldn't work, on pronunciation flow side. Or at the very least would sound odd.

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