Last week, we looked at some different ways to use “on”, one of the fundamentals of modern spoken French. And surprise, there is still more to learn!
This lesson was created with intermediate (B1/B2) and advanced learners in mind. If you’re a beginner (A1/A2), don’t worry if you don’t understand everything in this lesson. For you, I highly recommend focusing on the conjugations of important French verbs in the present tense first. Just try to follow along as much as you can.
No matter your level, be sure to check out part one of this lesson here if you haven’t already.
Knowing how to use “on” is very important, as it’s a very important part of knowing how to speak modern French. It’s a really simple way to sound more French when you speak, and quite easy to understand no matter your level. Let me show you. 🙂
By the end of this lesson, 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.”
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1) L’accord du participe passé et des adjectifs avec “on.”
In part one of the lesson, we already saw that “on” replaces “nous” in modern spoken French:
Nous mangeons une glace. → On mange une glace.
But, when we do this it means that “on” is representing several people. On = plusieurs personnes !
So what happens with the participe passé? Let’s look at an example: Nous sommes allées au cinéma. We assume that the sentence is talking about two women, deux femmes.
If we replace it with on, we write: On est allées au cinéma. As you can see here, the participe passé agrees with the pronoun, and because the pronoun “on” is representing several people the participe passé also agrees with several people.
For adjectives, it’s exactly the same:
Nous sommes contentes de te revoir. → On est contentes de te revoir.
Both adjectives add “es” to the end because there are two women talking.
Advanced learners: This rule doesn’t apply if “on” is being used as “un pronom indéfini” or to change the tone or context of the phrase. We touched on this briefly in section 2 of part 1 of this lesson.
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2) Le déterminant possessif avec “on.”
If you know French a little bit, your second question after understanding the rules of “on” and the participe passé will probably be: how does le déterminant possessif agree with “on”?
(And if you don’t know these grammar terms, don’t worry. I’m giving them to you so you learn, and you can Google them later if you need to.)
Once again, we saw that “on” replaces “nous”:
Nous mangeons une glace. → On mange une glace.
But what happens when we say: “Nous mangeons notre glace.”?
Do we say ““On mange sa glace.” ? No. This is a use of “on” as pronom indéfini.
Instead, it’s much easier. In fact, it’s used in exactly the same way as for the “participe passé” and adjectives we just saw.
Nous mangeons notre glace. → On mange notre glace.
Pro tip: keep “on = nous” in your head all the time. Ignore everything else, as the rest of the phrase stays exactly the same.
3) La dislocation avec “on.”
Heads up: If you’re B1/B2, don’t worry too much about what’s coming next. Absorb what you can, but don’t stress – this stuff is pretty advanted.
Let’s talk about “la dislocation du sujet”. It’s something you’ve probably heard in TV shows and movies. It’s not anything new, but we are using it more and more in modern spoken French – less in written French.
Some people say it’s childish French, but I disagree. If you know how to use it correctly, it’s simply a way to insist on a topic.
Let’s look at this example: Moi, j’aime la glace à la fraise. Me, I like strawberry ice cream.
Here, we are repeating the subject to insist on the fact that we really like it.
But what about “on”? What do we put at the beginning so we can insist: “???, on aime la glace.”?
Let’s look at the sentence in more detail:
- Moi, j’aime la glace à la fraise.
- Toi, tu aime la glace à la fraise.
- Lui, il aime la glace à la fraise.
- Elle, elle aime la glace à la fraise.
- Nous, nous aimons la glace à la fraise.
- Vous, vous aimez la glace à la fraise.
- Eux, ils aiment la glace à la fraise.
- Elles, elles aiment la glace à la fraise.
The first part (moi, toi, etc.) is le pronom tonique. The second part (je, tu, etc.) is le pronom personnel. This is followed by le verbe (aimer) and le complément (la glace à la fraise).
But what pronom tonique do we use with “on”? The easiest answer is to use “nous”: Nous, on aime la glace à la fraise. This is a very authentic, modern French way to tell people that you (collectively) really love strawberry ice cream, but the others don’t.
If you’re a big grammar nerd (like me), here are some useful resources for you (but don’t freak out if not, these are very advanced):
- ‘La dislocation à gauche’ from La Grammaire du Français Langue Étrangère pour Étudiants Finnophones.
- ‘Dislocation et conjugaison en français contemporain’ from Cahiers de praxématique.
Utilise “on” à la place de “nous”
Nous sommes allées au cinéma. (nous = Caroline et moi)
Nous prenons notre voiture pour partir en vacances.
Caroline et moi, nous sommes contentes de notre séjour en Corse.
On est allées au cinéma.
On prend notre voiture pour partir en vacances.
Caroline et moi, on est contentes de notre séjour en Corse.
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4) Advanced French with “On”
Let’s look quickly at a more advanced lesson with two examples.
Le qu’en-dira-t-on = l’opinion des autres (literally, “what are they going to say about it”)
Les on-dit = les rumeurs (literally, “the we-say”)
These are usually used in reference to gossip.
Finally, “on” is also often linked to l’euphonie, or how to make sounds fit together. This is very French. For example, when often we add a capital “L” when describing the place where we live:
L’euphonie: on → l’on (as in “Le pays où l’on habite”)
There’s no real reason for this. It just sounds better!
Et toi ?
What were you struggling with about “on” before that’s now clear?
Tell me in French, using “Avant, j’avais du mal avec… Aujourd’hui, j’ai compris que…”
Let me know in the comments below.
And don’t forget to share this lesson with a francophile friend who might enjoy it! As always, if you want more lessons on spoken French, check out our 10-day Everyday French Crash Course. It’s free!