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About French Personal Subject "on"

Hey everyone,
Sometimes I have a hard time using the English version of the French personal subject "on". Does anyone know a good translation or an expression for that?

Thank you,


  • There's no single expression that works every time.

    • In formal writing, we sometimes use one. Sometimes we use it in speech, but usually when speaking rather seriously — or pretending to be serious. For example, One must do one's best, I suppose.

    • In informal speech we often use they — especially with say but also in expression like They tell me, They've invented a new machine, They've moved the goalpost.

    • Also in speech, we often use we when the meaning is 'a number of people, including me' — often with know, but also in expressions like We live in troubled times.

    • In very informal speech, we often use you pronounced without stress, For example You often see her on TV. This is often the word ing for proverbs and little bits of wisdom.
    For example
    You can't make a silk purse form a sow's ear.
    and Chuck Berry's chorus
    'C'est la vie', said the old folks. 'It goes to show you never can tell.'

    • We use PASSIVE more than French does, even in speech. For example It's been decided ..., A record has been release ..., The results are published ... .

    • Instead of a pronoun, we sometimes use people. There's not much difference between They say and People say. But this is true only for general statements — not for something that happened, for example not People have moved the goalpost

    If you can give some examples of French uses that have given you trouble, some of us might be able to help.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited February 2018

    Here are some examples from the Larousse website.

    1. [indéterminé]
      on lui a retiré son passeport they took his passport away (from him), his passport was confiscated
      on vit de plus en plus vieux en Europe people in Europe are living longer and longer

    2. [avec une valeur généralisante] you, one (soutenu)
      souvent, on n'a pas le choix often you don't have any choice, often there's no choice
      on n'arrive pas à dormir avec cette chaleur it's impossible to sleep in this heat
      on ne sait jamais (ce qui peut arriver) you never know ou one never knows (soutenu) (what could happen)
      on dirait qu'il va pleuvoir it looks like rain
      on ne croirait pas qu'il est malade you wouldn't think he was ill

    3. [les gens] people, they
      on s'était rué sur les derniers billets there'd been a rush for the last tickets
      on dit que la vie là-bas n'est pas chère they say that the cost of living over there is cheap
      _on rapporte que... _ it is said that...

    4. [désignant un nombre indéterminé de personnes] they
      en Espagne on dîne plus tard in Spain they eat later
      on m'a dit que vous partiez bientôt I've been told you're leaving soon
      qu'est-ce qu'on en dit chez toi ? what do your folks have to say about it ?, what do they have to say about it at your place ?

    5. [quelqu'un]
      on vous a appelé ce matin somebody called you ou there was a (phone) call for you this morning
      est-ce qu'on t'a vu ? did anyone see you ?
      est-ce qu'on vous sert, Monsieur ? are you being served, Sir ?

    6. (familier) [nous] we
      on était très déçus we were very disappointed

    7. [se substituant à d'autres pronoms personnels]
      ça va, on a compris ! (familier) all right, I've got the message !
      dans ce premier chapitre, on a voulu montrer... in this first chapter, the aim has been to show...
      on est bien habillé, aujourd'hui ! (familier) we are dressed-up today, aren't we ?
      alors, on ne répond pas au téléphone ? (familier) aren't you going to answer the phone ?
      alors les gars, on cherche la bagarre ? (familier) are you guys looking for a fight ?
      on a tout ce qu'il faut et on passe son temps à se plaindre ! (familier) he/she has got everything and he/she still complains all the time !

    8. [dans des annonces]
      ‘on cherche un vendeur’ ‘salesman wanted ou required’


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