1

I'm a beginner at French, studying verbs conjugation and using "Alter ego +" as a didactic book.

The book presents the verb "avoir" as:

  • j'ai
  • tu as
  • il a
  • nous avons
  • vous avez
  • ils ont

However, some conjugations on the internet also have a subject I have never seen/spotted my teacher using before, "on", just after il/elle and with the same conjugation: "on a".

Who the "on" subject represents? When should it be used? Does it always have the same conjugation as il/elle? And what could be the reasons why the book/my teacher not use it while conjugating?

6

There certainly are near-duplicate questions, but I'll take the opportunity to comment on the context of learning French as a second language since on is a common stumbling block.

First, on mainly has three possible meanings:

  • Nous, i.e. we, but more standard. In Canada, for example, you might hear politicians use on in debates and nous in prepared speeches.

    On est prêt à sortir. Tu viens ?

  • The general they as in "They say you can hear it a mile away." (Or a general someone.)

    On me dit que tu as obtenu un poste. C'est génial !

  • The general you as in "You want to switch gears at around 2,500 RPM."
    Sometimes you'll see l'on. Same meaning, slightly more formal. A bit like saying "One ought to ..." in English.

    On ne doit jamais mentir à un policier.

All these meanings are conjugated the same as il. That's why books that optimize the conjugation system omit it. It's the same reason your book omits elle, since that too is redundant with il.

From a grammar point of view, that's probably smart for a beginner. But outside of conjugation, it's obviously still essential to learn elle, and the same goes for on.

Teachers usually turn their attention to on later than nous (not to mention elle !), even though on is more common in actual speech. Students learning a language in a traditional grammar-focused way, like I did, might get to a high level before going out into the French-speaking world and wondering... What is this word people use instead of nous ?

There are a few reasons why it's taught that way:

  • On is less grammaticalized in the language, so it has certain difficulties and gaps for expressing some meanings. For example, it's easy to say "ourselves" with nous but not with on.

  • Much classic literature, and even slightly older literature that makes up the exercises and books schools can't afford to replace, uses the more formal nous, so there's more reading material.

  • Any pronoun that can have three different meanings will make translation confusing.

So for now it's probably a good idea to stick with nous when learning French as a second language. However, be aware of on in videos or when you practice speaking casually with friends.

In newer language-learning methods that are more focused on natural oral use, such as immersion in Canada, the teacher will use on very early in an attempt to mirror how native speakers learn it.


See the comments for further complications regarding this pronoun!

  • 2
    The rabbit hole can go deeper (on can equate any and all pronouns) and sometimes in writing it may be required to walk back the garden path. Consider this: on s’est efforcée de décrire la situation de façon objective ... this is a feminine je... Teaching such intricacies must be challenging indeed. Thanks! – user3177 Jan 19 at 18:47
  • 2
    To the extent (if any) that knowing/using the correct form (number/gender) of a verb's past participle is/should be considered part of knowing how to correctly conjugate that verb in compound tenses, maybe one could argue that "on" is not [always] conjugated like "il" when used/found in compound tenses (but only if one agrees with the position that the agreement of past participles [& adjectives] with "on" should follow normal agreement rules when "on" is not being used as an indefinite pronoun, which position might require the [weird, imo] pluralization of your example of "On est prêt[S?]). – Papa Poule Jan 19 at 20:19
3

'On' means 'we' and is conjugated as a 3rd person singular.
Example: "On y va" = "Let's go!"
When writing formally or speaking politely, use 'nous' generally but the French use 'on' a lot when they speak. It is also translated as 'one' as in "one knows when to be quiet."

That is a bit formal, so when you see 'on' think 'we'. Remember, it is is the subject of the sentence where one would use 'on'.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.