I'm curious whether the use of "on" to mean "nous" is longstanding or a more recent vernacular. I studied French in high school and college for several years (long ago), but never learned that "on" can mean "nous." We were always taught that "on" was an indeterminate third-person singular, to be translated as "one" or in the passive. My high school French teacher probably had no clue, but a couple of my college French instructors were native French speakers. I don't recall the "on"="nous" business being covered in any of the textbooks either. I wonder why.
I'm very glad to be learning this usage now from Duolingo, but I'm having a hard time getting my brain around it.
Actually, the etymological root of "on" is the same as "homme", ie Latin homo and hominem, respectively (re. same case in German with Mann and man). So it is an old noun that used to have an article to refer to an "undefined individual".
With time, "on" changed status from noun to pronoun: an indeterminate third-person singular indeed.
Nowadays, "on" is so much easier to conjugate than "nous", that people have ended up using "on" not only to mean the English "one", but as a substitute to "nous".
Yes, and "on" is always subject.
It has no stressed form, nor object form, so "on" cannot be direct or indirect object, you don't use it after a preposition, etc.
- Nous sommes partis / On est parti -> Qui est parti ? Nous !
- Nous aimons / On aime le cheval -> Le cheval nous aime
- Nous lui parlons / On lui parle -> Il nous parle
- Nous avons notre clé / On a sa clé -> La clé est pour nous
Hi sitesurf i really like your explanations! However in the wikipedia page posted below, it says that possessive pronouns with "on" meaning "we" should be in the first person. Meaning the last example you gave should be "on a notre clé" and not how you wrote it... Am I correct?
When "on" is somebody unknown , like the English "one" (=someone/somebody), it represents one person and all the words connected to it are in 3rd person singular for the verb and possessives, and in masculine singular for adjectives and past participles.
- One must watch one's (their) language = On doit surveiller son langage.
When Duolingo gives you a sentence with "we", you know that the subject is a minimum of 2 persons. Therefore, you keep the conjugation in 3rd person singular and the rest matches 2 or more people.
- We must watch our language = on doit surveiller notre langage / nous devons surveiller notre langage
"On" can mean "we".
Additionally, I don't think the English translation is accurate. It should either be "We have dogs" or "We have some dogs", not "We have some of the dogs".
Edit: The English appears to have been fixed now.
If you were really going to say "they", you would use "ils" or "elles". "On" is used as the generic we, the generic you, or the generic they. I.e., it is not always used in a sense of referring to some specific group or a specific person. "They have (some) dogs" doesn't conjure up a generic "they" to me.