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What’s the difference between on and l’on? In a nutshell, on is sometimes preceded by l’ for reasons of euphony. This usage is formal and much more common in written rather than spoken French.
L’on is never required, but it is preferred when formality and elegance are desired, as in these three situations:
1) At the beginning of a clause
Because it just sounds better:
|L’on est obligé de porter un smoking.||You are required to wear a tuxedo.|
|Demain, l’on va étudier un poème.||Tomorrow, we’re going to study a poem.|
Also see un vs l’un.
L’on at the beginning of a sentence is very old-fashioned and formal, a relic of l’époque classique. On was originally the subject case for homme, l’on meant les hommes. French lost the subject case around the 17th century, and on became the pronoun we know and love today.
2) To avoid hiatus
After the monosyllabic, vowel-sound-ending words et, ou, où, qui, quoi, and si, l’on is preferable to on so that there’s no hiatus (two vowel sounds side by side).
|Je ne sais pas de quoi l’on parle.||I don’t know what people are talking about.|
|C’est la maison où l’on habite.||That’s the house where we live.|
3) To avoid con
After lorsque, puisque, and que, using l’on avoids the contraction and thus pronouncing (even silently inside your head) what sounds like the offensive word con.
|J’espère que l’on arrivera à l’heure.||I hope we arrive on time.|
|Puisque l’on parle de dîner …||Speaking of dinner …|
Grammar notes: On is the impersonal subject pronoun and l’ here is a definite article (as opposed to a direct object).
L’on is disallowed in two places:
1) After dont
The liaison in dont on sounds better than
|L’homme dont on parle …||The man we’re talking about …|
|Je ne sais pas ce dont on a besoin.||I don’t know what we need.|
2) In front of l
L’on followed by a word beginning with the letter L would sound odd.
|Si on laisse nos affaires ici …||If we leave our things here …|
|Savez-vous où on loue les voitures ?||Do you know where we rent the cars?|
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