Does anyone have any information on why they decided to use "on" as the informal way to say " we " in French?

And why we conjugate the verb that comes after that exactly like Elle and il?

I read this while researching " Before becoming a personal pronoun, « on » was a common name. « On » was first spelled « om », then « hom » and came from the Latin « homo » same as the word »homme » (man). Originally, then, »on » meant « man » in general. But with time it turned into a pronoun and lost this meaning. Still, that’s the reason why we conjugate « on » in the singular even if today the meaning is plural! "

But I don't understand how the definition (on = man ) turned to ( we or in general ) !?

  • 2
    Can you please expand on what you mean by "they decided" please? Who is "they" ? Because personally I do not think anyone decided on that. On can indeed be an informal way to mean "we" (but not always informal). You have to consider language history and etymology. A way to start might be to read the etymology on the wiktionnaire. There's are already lots of question on on on FL. This one might be of interest: Pourquoi utilise-t-on « on » au lieu de « nous »?
    – None
    Jun 21, 2023 at 12:07
  • You say "we conjugate « on » in the singular even if today the meaning is plural! "" : no the meaning is not always plural. It can stand for several persons, but it can also stand for one.
    – None
    Jun 21, 2023 at 12:16
  • 1
    Even in English, we don't change the conjugation when we start using a pronoun for something other than its original use. With the singular "they", we use "are" and not "is"; for example, we'd say "the plumber is coming at two, and they are going to fix the leak," using "is" and "are" for the same person in the same sentence. Jun 21, 2023 at 12:30
  • 1
    Man spricht Deutsch.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 21, 2023 at 12:46
  • I would recommend reading the TLFi entry on on, which seems to have everything you want to know and then some ... stella.atilf.fr/Dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/…;
    – Frank
    Jun 21, 2023 at 15:08

2 Answers 2


As you've gathered, the French pronoun on is a pronom impersonnel with no real equivalent in English.

It originally comes from the Latin homo, meaning "man". In Old French, it evolved into on, meaning "man, person".

Its widespread use is mainly due to the influence of the spoken word: replacing nous with on makes speech more fluid, avoiding the systematic repetition of nous. This has facilitated its gradual adoption. Oral usage very often influences the written word.

As for why it's used as a 3rd person singular, there's no particular reason except that it's because it's impersonal and indefinite. It allows us to speak generally, without explicit reference to a specific subject.

  • 5
    One can sometimes be an English equivalent of the impersonal on but English prefers the passive form: On parle français / Man spricht Deutsch / English spoken. There is no other choice than the third person singular when you know on was originally l'homme.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:05
  • "replacing nous with on makes speech more fluid, avoiding the systematic repetition of nous": What is this would-be fluidity?There is nothing wrong then with the systematic repetition of "on"? Those assertions are mere opinion. There is no equivalent of "on" in English, where the proper pronoun is used, and no such considerations of loss of fluidity or excessive repetition. What is so special to French? Nothing, I believe.
    – LPH
    Jun 21, 2023 at 14:09
  • Some phrases have become more or less impossible with nous. For example, on y va? cannot be nous y va?. Nous y allons? would work better, but is not as natural now as on y va?.
    – Frank
    Jun 21, 2023 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Frank Nous y va would be "heretic"! :-)
    – jlliagre
    Jun 21, 2023 at 20:19

The usage for "nous" goes back at least to 1445, when the conjugation ending then used was even that of the first person plural.

(TLFi, étymologie) C. On employé stylistiquement pour représenter une ou plusieurs personnes déterminées 1. dans le discours direct, est substitué à un pron. pers. de la 2e ers. pour exprimer la distance entre le locuteur et autrui 1198-1202 substitué à tu (Jean Bodel, St Nicolas, éd. A. Henry, 256: Que vent on chaiens? [dit Auberon au tavernier]); 2. substitué à un pron. pers. de la 3e pers. [emploi prédicatif] 1253 (Recueil gén. des jeux-partis éd. A. Långfors, XCIII, Sire Audefroy à J. Bretel, 1: J'aim par amours et on moi ensement [on: elle, ma dame]); 3. substitué à un pron. de la 1repers. a) ca 1340 représente je (Bastard de Bouillon, éd. R. Fr. Cook, 4760: ,,Biaus niés'' , dist l'amulainne, ,,oies c'on vous dira``); b) représente nous; le verbe est au plur. ca 1445 Rouen (Farce joyeuse des galans et du monde ds Recueil gén. des sotties, éd. E. Picot, II, 88: On ne debvons pas grand amende; v. ex. analogues xvies. Normandie au gloss., s.v. on; cf. Hug.).

How this came about can be seen to have the background of a period where usage was variegated and uncertain, a period where various grammatical persons could be represented ("tu", "elle", "je"); it is only a matter for speculation as to how the use of each came into being; at the very origin there might have been an error or the will of one individual to innovate (more likely), and finally the locuteurs took to the practice as it appealed to them. What is apparent from this is that at some point the third person singular was adopted, and that the switch over to a representation of a first person plural by a third person singular has been progressive (although the first phase might have been quite short), but it eclipsed all other choices.

  • 1
    On can be used and is still used today as a substitute for any person (first, second, and third) and number (singular & plural). On the other hand, the verb agreement has always been with the third person singular, The On ne debvons example is probably exceptional, likely regional and possibly similar to Je mangions that until recently could be heard in central France.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 21, 2023 at 20:55
  • @jlliagre It seems to me that it is rarely used for other persons than the first person plural, and then there are often certain connotations attached, whereas in the case of the first person plural it is always plain "nous".
    – LPH
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:46
  • 1
    Bon, après un peu de recherche, il semble que l'exemple on ne debvons ne soit pas exceptionnel mais il est bien similaire à l'utilisation de la première personne du pluriel avec un pronom au singulier (je mangions, j'avions). Les verbes n'exigeaient pas encore de sujets en moyen français, sujets dont la position était plus libre qu'aujourd'hui, dont le lien avec le verbe était plus lâche.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 21, 2023 at 22:04
  • @jlliagre debvons? Tu veux dire que ce n'était pas exceptionnel au 15e et 16e siècles? De nos jours ...
    – Frank
    Jun 22, 2023 at 0:45
  • 1
    @Frank Oui, debvons, du verbe debvoir, ce B étant une réminiscence du debere latin qui a disparu depuis. Ce qui n'était pas exceptionnel en moyen français, c'est l'utilisation de on avec des verbes conjugués à d'autres temps que la 3e pers. du singulier. On pouvait donc dire on aurions tort.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 22, 2023 at 1:27

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