On (Pronoun) in French Meaning & Translation

What does the subject pronoun on mean in French?

The French subject pronoun on has translates literally to ‘one’ but has many meanings. On serves as an equivalent to the subject pronoun nous. This is the most common usage. On can also be used to create a passive voice. This page will examine its multiple meanings with lots of example sentences.

Guide to the usage of the French pronoun "on"
je Inous we
tu - you (singular)vous - you (pl, formal)
il, elle, on - he, she, oneils, elles - they

French pronoun on usage and examples

On equates to nous for to mean we

The most common usage in spoken French is on replacing nous. On is almost always used when discussing plans with people in your group.

During my private lessons students often ask, which is correct, on or nous? The answer is that you can use both but on is more common when talking with a friend or family member.

For example:

  • On va à la plage? Shall we go to the beach?
  • Ou on va au restaurant? Or shall we go to the restaurant?
  • Qu’est-ce qu’on fait? What shall we do?
  • On continue. Let’s move on.
Example of how to use the pronoun on in French.

Indefinite person usage

Another usage is simply an indefinite person, or “one”. In translating the following examples, “one” could also be replaced with “you” in spoken English.

  • On ne peut pas tout savoir. One cannot know everything.
  • On ne sait jamais! One never knows! (You never know.)
  • Comment est-ce qu’on utilise ce mot? How do you use this word?
  • Comment dit-on _ en français? How do you say _ in French?

Used for giving instructions or commands

On is commonly used in giving instructions in sports or music.

  • On plie les jambes. Bend your legs.
  • On joue une note à la fois. Play one note at a time.

People in the general sense

On can also simply mean ‘people’.

  • En France, on mange bien. In France people eat well.
  • Aux États-Unis, on mange moins bien! People don’t eat as well in the US.

Indirect language usage

Sometimes on can be used in the place of tu. This is a form of indirect language.

  • Alors, on ne travaille pas trop dur aujourd’hui? So, we’re not working to hard today?
  • On oublie ses responsabilités? Are we forgetting our responsibilities?

Passive voice

  • On parle japonais au japon. Japanese is spoken in Japan.
  • On n’a pas encore découvert une vaccination au Covid 19. A vaccination to Covid 19 still hasn’t been discovered.

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