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Who Is On?

In your Yabla wanderings and French learning, you may have come across the ubiquitous indefinite personal pronoun on (one). While “one” is rather formal in English (as in “one is inclined to forget things"), on is more conversational in French. It is also much more versatile, as it doesn’t just mean “one.” So, let’s explore the many ways of using on


As we mentioned, the primary meaning of on is “one,” just as in English when making a general statement. In the following video, on refers to what “one” can eat at this Alsatian restaurant:


Qu'est-ce qu'on peut manger, chez vous, ici, pour huit euros?

What can one eat at your place here for eight euros?

Caption 25, Alsace 20 Grain de Sel: à l'Anatable à Dinsheim

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In practice though, on can refer to anyone. Besides "one," it can translate to any number of things in English: “you," "we," "people," "they." It's up to the listener or reader to figure out from context who on is referring to. For example, in the same video, the chef also uses on to answer the reporter’s question, but this time, on translates as “we” since the chef is talking about himself and his team. 


Donc écoute, aujourd'hui pour huit euros, en menu du jour, on a fait un tartare de hareng fumé et pomme de terre à l'huile d'olive

So listen, today for eight euros, on the menu of the day, we made a smoked herring and potato tartare with olive oil

Captions 26-27, Alsace 20 Grain de Sel: à l'Anatable à Dinsheim

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The chef could just as easily have used nous (we) in this situation (nous avons fait un tartare de hareng fumé...), but on is more conversational than nous. In fact, some even advise against using nous as a subject pronoun in casual conversation in favor of on, since nous will sound too formal. By the same token, avoid using on for "we" in formal situations and in writing—in those instances, stick with nous.


However, in a different situation, on can mean "you" when referring to the person being spoken to. In the video below, the speaker addresses “you,” the potential ticket buyer:   


Voilà, on peut acheter un ticket à la journée, à la semaine...

There we are. You can buy a ticket for the day, for the week...

Captions 55-56, Amal Vélib

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Other times, when it is unclear or not important to know who the subject is, on is a very convenient pronoun to use, equivalent to the generalized “they” or “people” in English. In his video on Nemours, Daniel Benchimol doesn’t know or doesn’t wish to mention who gave the town its nickname, la Venise du Gâtinais:


Nemours c'est aussi celle qu'on surnomme la Venise du Gâtinais.

Nemours is also the one they nickname "La Venise du Gâtinais" [The Venice of the Gâtinais].

Caption 5, Voyage en France Nemours - Part 4

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On also comes in handy when there is no way of knowing who you're referring to—for example, when the perpetrator of an action, often a negative one such as a theft, is unknown. In cases like these, on is best rendered by the passive voice in English, as the emphasis is on the “victim” or the recipient of the action. In the video below, on refers to the unknown person who stole Sophie’s phone:


C'est pas parce que... on t'a volé ton téléphone que tu vas plus avoir de boulot.

Just because... you had your phone stolen doesn't mean that you're not going to have a job anymore.

Captions 48-49, Sophie et Patrice On m'a volé mon téléphone

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You can also use on in another interesting way, to make a suggestion or prompt people into action, as in “let's sing":


Alors on chante! Allez, tu viens? Tu viens chanter avec moi? On y est? Alors c'est parti!

So let's sing! Come on, are you coming? Are you coming to sing with me? Are we ready? Then off we go!

Caption 48, Actu Vingtième Le vide-grenier

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A more unusual way of using on is instead of tu or vous (you) to avoid addressing the person directly and soften the tone. It’s a gentle way of initiating contact. When someone is tired, for example, you could say:


On est fatigué ce soir ?

We’re tired tonight? [You're tired tonight?]


You can even use on as an oblique way of referring to yourself out of modesty. For instance, to avoid bragging about yourself, you might say:


On a gagné le premier prix.

We won first prize. [I won first prize.]


As you can see, on is a very versatile and easy-to-use pronoun that is suitable for all kinds of conversational situations. (For even more, click on this link.) Just keep in mind that on is often open to interpretation, which can come at the expense of clarity. So let our Yabla videos guide you. 


On y va ! (Let’s go!)


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