Modern Spoken French: How to Use “On”

In order to upgrade your textbook French to modern spoken French, learning how to use “on” is key to sound more authentic. You probably heard about “on” in French before. 

In proverbs such as “On a toujours besoin d’un plus petit que soi.” (“la morale” de la fable “Le lion et le rat” de Jean de la Fontaine) or “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”: wise words from the Fox in Le Petit Prince d’Antoine de St-Exupéry.

Let’s look at how we use “on” in modern spoken French. The use of “on” is one of the fundamentals of modern spoken French. It’s also a very easy way to sound more French. It’s simple to understand and to add to your French, no matter your level. I’ll show you all my tricks. :)

In this lesson, I’m showing you how to add “on” in your spoken French. By the end, you will:

  • Understand the meaning of “on” in modern spoken French.
  • Beginner: learn how to conjugate verbs with “on.”
  • Intermediate: build authentic full French sentences with “on.”
  • Advanced: discover advanced words with “on.”

C’est parti !

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1. What's On

“On” is “un pronom”.

You probably already know “les pronoms personnels” in French : je, tu, il/elle, nous, vous, ils/elles. You can add “on” next to il/elle. You conjugate verbs the same way.

  • [il / elle / on] mange (manger : verbe du premier groupe)
  • [il / elle / on] finit (finir : verbe du deuxième groupe)
  • [il / elle / on] ouvre (ouvrir : verbe du troisième groupe)

Want to read this lesson later ?

2. What You Learned at School About “On”

If you learned French at school, you probably heard that “on” is “un pronom indéfini” that we could translate into the indefinite “you/one”. We could also say “on” is a synonym of “quelqu’un” (= someone) or “n’importe qui” (= anyone).

Here are some examples:

  • “On a sonné à la porte ?” → Did someone ring the doorbell?
  • “Comme on fait son lit, on se couche.” (= Il faut assumer les conséquences de ses actes.) → and lots of other proverbs in French.
  • “On va manger tous ses légumes, aujourd’hui !” → here, the “on” = “tu/vous”. It is just a way to avoid being direct. Forget about this use if you’re a beginner. :)

3. “Nous” becomes “On” in Modern Spoken French

That’s the most important element in this lesson.

In modern spoken French, we replace “nous” by “on”. In this case, “on” becomes “un pronom personnel” because we know who this is about!

For example:
“Nous allons au marché.” (= verbe “aller” au présent)
becomes:
“On va au marché.”

This is normal everyday French. Not youth French. Not vulgar French. It’s even the written French form for most people. Including me. :) I never use “nous”.

QUIZ!

Conjugue au présent (de l’indicatif)
Aimer (1er groupe) : on __________ / nous __________
Réussir (2e groupe) : on __________ / nous __________
Aller (3e groupe) : on __________ / nous __________

Être (Auxiliaire) : on __________ / nous __________
Avoir (Auxiliaire) : on __________ / nous __________

Answers:

Aimer (1er groupe) : on aime / nous aimons
Réussir (2e groupe) : on réussit / nous réussissons
Aller (3e groupe) : on va / nous allons

Être (Auxiliaire) : on est / nous sommes
Avoir (Auxiliaire) : on a / nous avons

If you want to check your French conjugations, here are 2 resources I use and like:

If you’re A1/A2, don’t worry too much about part 2 of this lesson. Feel free to follow but don’t worry if you don’t understand or are not yet ready to implement it! Learn the conjugation of the important French verbs in present instead.

Next week we’ll see:

  1. L’accord du participe passé et des adjectifs avec “on.”
  2. Le déterminant possessif avec “on.”
  3. La dislocation avec “on.”
  4. Advanced French with “on.”

Want to save this for later ?

Et toi ?

What were you struggling with about “on” before that’s now clear?
How did you use “on” before this lesson?

Let me know in the comments below.

Bonne journée,
Géraldine

Join the conversation!

  • I never realised that it was used much more nowadays than when I was at school MANY years ago, it is a really useful lesson and will be trying to use ‘on’ much more than before, now that I know how it is used….. I often hear this word now that I live here in France and try to understand its use – now I know! Merci!!

  • Merci bien, Geraldine. J’aime beaucoup vos lecons. Mais, “Ouvrir,” je crois, ce n’est pas un verbe du troisieme conjugaison. Ces verbes sont les verbes en -re, comme vendre, entendre, attendre, etc. On conjugue “ouvrir” comme les verbes en -er, au temps present. Ou est-ce qu’on a change les regles?? Bien possible, je crois! Je regrette le manque d’accents.

    • Bonjour Sandi,
      Merci pour ta question. Non, les règles n’ont pas changé et “ouvrir” est toujours un verbe du 3e groupe.
      Les verbes du 2e groupe sont les verbes en -ir dont le participe présent se termine en -issant.
      Par exemple : finir –> finissant
      Mais pour ouvrir, le participe présent est “ouvrant”, donc c’est un verbe du 3e groupe.
      C’est une erreur classique, ne t’inquiète pas.

  • Thank you, Geraldine – this is really useful as always! But I’m still a bit puzzled, as my Belgian friend told me “on” now ONLY means “nous” and nothing else. I was taught at school decades ago that “on” could mean “one”, “you”, “we”, “they”, “someone” or replace a passive. You could use “on” to replace “you”, “they” or “someone” in examples like the following: “It’s difficult when YOU don’t know French very well”, or “THEY still haven’t mended the hole in the road”, or “SOMEONE has taken my coat”; or you could translate “the door has been opened” as “on a ouvert la porte”. Are any of these uses still current, or are they old-fashioned like the proverbs you mentioned? Would the examples above now use “vous”, “ils” and “quelqu’un” and would the passive example now be translated as “la porte a ete ouverte”?

  • Geraldine,
    Merci encore! Quand J’ai visite la France cette annee tout le monde employait “on”! I also learned way back in the dark ages that ON meant one and it always seemed stilted to me. I felt the sense of the expressions but that literal translation was confusing. You are doing a great job! I truly enjoy your blogs and lessons.

  • Hey Geraldine, I always thought ‘on’ meant ‘one’ (…as the Queen would say it! eg ‘One is having a garden party today!’) – essentially, ‘we’. I didn’t know that it could me I, you, he, she nor about the danger of offending someone by being condescending! Thanks.

  • I use “on” most of the time when speaking and a mix of “on” and “nous” when writing. But it sounds like I should be using mostly “on” even when writing. When is the use of “nous” appropriate when writing?

    • Excellent question Keith.
      “Nous” is never inappropriate. So don’t worry about this. Worst case scenario, it’s a bit stiff.
      I personally never use “nous” in writing. Unless it’s a formal email/letter (complaint, letter to an administration, etc.).
      My only advice is: don’t switch from one to the other within the same letter/email.

  • I believe the normal translation of “soi” in “on a besion d’un plus petit de soi is “us” 🙂
    After a few years in France now, it is rare to hear or use “nous” perhaps only on TV News or in writing a letter.

  • The third one of part 2. “On va manger tous ses légumes, aujourd’hui”, why would it not be … “manger vos legumes or tes legumes? (Eat YOUR vegetables)

  • Merci ! I got comfortable using “on” in my French practice and it opened doors for me in France (quite literally – like the time I put my family on the wrong train line mistakenly and because I was able to discuss the issue with the attendant in the station he let us through without having to pay fares again even though it was clearly my own fault). Like many Americans, I was taught that “on” was formal and meant “one” much like British English. Once I started using it the reaction of French people was immediate. It’s like a key to a lock you didn’t know was there. This summer while in Paris I was asked several times if I live there now (I wish) and my language skills are far from perfect. It’s like in your previous lesson, Géraldine, where you demonstrated how even with language mistakes Christine could sound much more French by employing certain phrases and customs.

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