On – Subject Pronoun

On - indefinite French subject pronoun
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Pronom sujet indéfini

The indefinite French subject pronoun on literally means "one," but is usually translated by an indefinite subject such as

  • everyone
  • someone
  • people
  • they
  • you

Par exemple…

On a frappé à la porte.   Someone knocked on the door.
On est fou !   People are crazy!
On dit que c’est un bon film.   They say it’s a good movie.
On ne sait jamais.   You never know.

On can be equivalent to the English passive voice.

On parle français ici.   French is spoken here.
On n’accepte pas les chèques.   Checks not accepted.
On l’a vu dans une voiture rouge.   He was seen in a red car.

On is also an informal replacement for nous and the plural vous.

On habite ici depuis deux ans.   We’ve lived here for two years.
On y va !   Let’s go!
Salut les filles ! Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait aujourd’hui ?   Hi girls! What did you do today?

 Agreement with on

While on‘s verb is always conjugated in the third person singular, there’s some debate about whether adjectives and past participles should be made to agree with on‘s implied subject. For example, in the final example above, on is clearly feminine plural. If you asked a question like "Where did you go today?" or "Are you happy with our decision?" with vous, you’d definitely need agreement.

Salut les filles ! Où êtes-vous allées aujourd’hui ?
Salut les filles ! Êtes-vous contentes de notre décision ?

With on, however, agreement is optional – at least in theory. Some native speakers insist that it’s required, but according to Le Bon Usage section 438 b1:

 Et je cite…

[I]l n’est pas rare que le pronom représente en fait une ou des personnes bien identifiées […] Dans ce cas, si le verbe reste nécessairement au singulier, l’adjectif attribut, l’épithète détachée, le participe passé peuvent prendre le genre et le nombre correspondant au sexe et au nombre des êtres désignés.
(c’est moi qui souligne)

"… the attributive adjective, detached epithet, [and] past participle can take the gender and number …" (my emphasis)

For me, that equals you can make it agree, but you don’t have to. Thus, both are correct:

Salut les filles ! Où est-ce qu’on est allé / allées aujourd’hui ?
Salut les filles ! Est-ce qu’on est content / contentes de notre décision ?

Since on is a neuter pronoun, I personally don’t use agreement, but your French teacher might feel differently, so check with him or her rather than taking my word for it!

 Related lessons

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