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 parle français ici.   They speak French here.
On a frappĂ© Ă  la porte.   Someone knocked on the door.
On est fou !   People are crazy!
On ne sait jamais.   You never know.

Informally, on often replaces nous and the plural vous.

Par exemple…

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.

Par exemple…

Salut les filles ! OĂč ĂȘtes-vous allĂ©es aujourd’hui ?   Hi girls! Where did you go today?
Salut les filles ! Êtes-vous contentes de notre dĂ©cision ?   Hi girls! Are you happy with our decision?

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 reprĂ©sente en fait une ou des personnes bien identifiĂ©es […] Dans ce cas, si le verbe reste nĂ©cessairement au singulier, l’adjectif attribut, l’Ă©pithĂšte dĂ©tachĂ©e, le participe passĂ© peuvent prendre le genre et le nombre correspondant au sexe et au nombre des ĂȘtres dĂ©signĂ©s.
(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 ! OĂč est-ce qu’on est allĂ© / allĂ©es aujourd’hui ?
Salut les filles ! Est-ce qu’on est content / contentes de notre dĂ©cision ?

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

On can also be equivalent to the English passive voice.

Par exemple…

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

 Related lessons

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On - French pronoun

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