Nous vs on (subject pronouns)

In French, there are TWO subject pronouns (i.e. I, you, he, etc.) to express we : nous and on.

Look at these sentences using these pronouns:

Nous sommes gentils.
We are kind.

On est gentils.
We are kind.

Nous allons au marché.
We go to the market.

On va au marché.
We go to the market.

 

Nous is a plural pronoun: this is the we you use mostly in written form, or when you want to be more formal.

On is a more informal we, used predominantly in speech or casual writing (in emails to your friends for example). This is also a singular pronoun which is followed by the same form of the verb as singular il or elle

You can see it as an equivalent to the English 'one' in form, if not exactly in meaning.

 

See also On = we, one, people 

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

On est gentils.
We are kind.


Nous sommes gentils.
We are kind.


On sort ce soir ?
Are we going out tonight?


On va au marché.
We go to the market.


Nous allons au marché.
We go to the market.


Q&A

Jonathon

Kwiziq community member

28 May 2018

4 replies

I was taking a test and I still don't understand when to use on vs. nous. They seem to be interchangeable. Can you give more examples?

The test was one of those translate in the blank ones - Weekend in Lyon.  It kept on using on when it seemed to me that nous would have been just as appropriate.  Why use one over the other?  

Chris

Kwiziq community member

29 May 2018

29/05/18

The explanation is given in the two green boxes in the lesson. Can you tell me what specifically is unclear?

-- Chris. 

Jonathon

Kwiziq community member

29 May 2018

29/05/18

Well, it just seems kind of arbitrary.  I didn't take that lesson to be overly informal.  Is it sort of like vous/tu where, when in doubt use vous until specifically told otherwise?  In other words, it seems safer to default to use nous instead of on unless you're sure that the situation is informal.  

Chris

Kwiziq community member

29 May 2018

29/05/18

In everyday French, one hears more on than nous. The latter is more formal. But if you want an impersonal "we", your only option is on.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

29 May 2018

29/05/18

Hi Jonathon,

As stated in the lesson 'nous' is more formal and in conversation the French will use 'on' to mean the same . It is preferred as it is easier to say and you need at the very least to be able to recognise it.

As for examples, I remember the night Miterrand won his first Presidential election in 1981, bringing the Socialists into power, people in the street chanting: 'On a gagné' repeatedly which is much easier to chant than 'Nous avons gagné' for 'We have won' !

Allez , on y va! (Come on, let's go !)

Hope this helps!

 

steven

Kwiziq community member

10 February 2018

4 replies

Well, not a question on this theme exactly, but also about adjectives.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

10 February 2018

10/02/18

So what's your question?

-- Chris. 

steven

Kwiziq community member

11 February 2018

11/02/18

Valid question, Chris. I had placed the question in the second box that the site offer, which solicits greater detail about the question, but after submitting my entry I saw that what I had written in that box did not appear, and unfortunately I did not keep a copy of my question, so here goes again (first on a Word document in the event of another unwelcome surprise).

 

Lawless states, in her lesson on depuis vs il y a, that depuis can only be used with verbs in the present and imparfait tenses. But that seemed to not jibe with this sentence I came across in a French novel: Linda était partie depuis treize ans.

 

I believe it translates to "Linda had been gone 13 years," which makes sense in the context of the story.

 

As I see it, "était partie" could be one of two things: either the plus-que-parfait with partir as the primary verb, or the imparfait (of être) with partie as an adjective. If it is the former, then it disobeys the Lawless rule. If the latter, it is consistent with the Lawless rule, where "être" is a state-of-being verb as Lawless labels it (and "partie" is the adjective "gone").

 

This led me to a broader question: being that the past participle of a verb conjugated with être need be gender and numbers aligned to the subject (as are adjectives), it must be that context comes into play to determine when the verb at hand is in the imparafit or plus-que-parfait tense, yes? 

 

Thanks.

 

Steve

Chris

Kwiziq community member

14 February 2018

14/02/18

Hi Steve,

yes, the translation of "Linda était partie depuis treize ans" as "Linda had been gone for 13 years" is correct and requires the imparfait in French. You can think of the past participle "partie" as an adjective. The sentence would work equally if you substituted "heureuse" in its stead:

Linda était heureuse pendant 13 ans. -- Linda had been happy for 13 years.

I hope that helps a bit.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

steven

Kwiziq community member

14 February 2018

14/02/18

Thanks Chris.  So is it fair to say that for verbs taking être as the auxiliary verb, whether the tense is the imparfait or the plus-que-parfait depends solely (or at least in many instances) on context, being that they look identical?

Susan

Kwiziq community member

14 September 2016

3 replies

Since "on" is singular, is, "On est Gentils," correct?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

15 September 2016

15/09/16

Bonjour Susan ! Yes, it is a very peculiar case, but when "on" actually refers to more than one person (= "nous"), you will agree adjectives to the number of people, therefore using plural... UNLESS you're using "on" in a general way (= "one" does...), then you will use the singular form. - Quand on est gentil, le monde nous sourit ! (When one is nice, the world smiles at them!) - On est gentils avec notre sœur. (We're nice with our sister.) I hope this helps! À bientôt !

Susan

Kwiziq community member

15 September 2016

15/09/16

One sees the logic. Merci!

Brenda Leisa

Kwiziq community member

9 January 2018

9/01/18

Merci, beaucoup!
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