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on - a very common pronoun

The pronoun on is used in a wide variety of contexts.

A listener emailed us in the last few days about the pronoun on. Its use is extremely common in French, especially in the spoken language.

In fact, on can take the place of any of je, tu, il, elle, nous, vous, ils, elles… depending on the circumstances.

As a general rule, adjectives/past participles agree with the logical sense of on in the sentence.

For example, when on takes the place of nous, agreement is in the plural:

  • On a tous été choqués. (on = we) We were all shocked.
  • On a tous été un peu ivres hier soir. (on = we) We were all a little drunk last night.
  • Toi et Jane, êtes-vous sortis hier soir? Non, on est restés à la maison. (on = we) Did you and Jane go out last night? No, we stayed at home.

When on replaces tout le monde, however, agreement is in the singular:

  • Dans la vie, on a tous été un peu ivre à un moment ou à un autre. (on = everybody) At one moment or another in life, everybody has been drunk.

On can replace other pronouns, too…

On can also be a very regular 'substitute' in casual language to refer to the person to whom one is speaking:

  • Tiens, on s'est levé de bonne heure ce matin, n'est-ce pas! (on = you) Hey, you got up early this morning, aren't you! (une maman à son fils)
  • Tiens, on s'est levée… (on = you) Hey, you got up… (une maman à sa fille)

And a few more examples…

  • On a vécu un moment exceptionnel. (on = we) We experienced an exceptional moment.
  • Lorsque que l'on étudie les chiffres, on constate que… (on = one) When one studies the figures, one finds that…
  • Est-il vrai que l'on mange du rat là-bas? (on = they/people) Is it true that they eat rat there?

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