On appelle la fille

"On appelle la fille" is translated as "We call the girl." Can anyone explain "on" here? What is the difference between "on appelle" and "nous appelons," if the first one is "we call" too?

June 26, 2012


Hey Olimo,

"On," which translates literally to "one," as in "One does X" or "One does Y" in French is a really nuanced concept. It is a kind of spoken phenomenon that is not really ever taught in French, and hopefully this will change soon, because it is important to understand the weight that using "on" has in modern spoken French. There are a few unspoken rules about "on" when you are speaking French.

1.) It is MUCH more likely that "on" will be used in regular everyday conversation in place of "nous." I think this is for several reasons - one being that in fast everyday conversation, conjugating and using "on" is much easier and faster, and so overtime it is replacing "nous." For example, "on boit" (2 syllables) vs. "nous buvons" (3 syllables). So, in this way, it makes perfect sense that "On appelle" is going to replace "Nous appelons" (think about what a mouthful that last phrase is at 4 syllables!). So, this brings us to rule number:

2.) "Nous" is used very rarely, and in certain situations:

2a.) If you are in a group of people and you wish to refer specifically to yourself and a few select others within the group. FOR EXAMPLE: If there are 5 people in the group, and you are talking about ALL of you going to the Louvre, you would use "on." HOWEVER, if only you and 1 or 2 others within that group of 5 are going to the Louvre, then you would be more likely specify you and those others when talking to the whole group by saying "nous" in reference to you and those 1 or 2 others.

2b.) If you wish to place emphasis on the fact that "we" are doing something, then it is not simply a matter of just saying "on va au marché," but "NOUS ALLONS au marché."


"On va au marché."

"Qui va au marché?"

"Toi et moi. Nous allons au marché."

2c.) If you are describing a specific situation or a story about yourself and others in which you (or, "we") specifically did X or Y.

3.) "On" is a really easy way to ask general questions about the world or people in general. EXAMPLES: "Do people do this?" = "Est-ce qu'on fait ça?" (or just "On fait ça?") OR, "What are we doing?" = "Qu'est-ce qu'on fait?" This last question may even be asked generally of a group of people that you have just come upon as a way to ask "What are YOU (and now me, because I just joined the group) doing?"

4.) You can make suggestions using "on." A really simple way to ask "Shall we go?" = "On y va?" = (literally - "Does one go there?")

Obviously when we are reading academic texts and translations, we are not going to run into "on" very often. However, I would get used to using it in normal conversation. You will sound much more French that way. "ON" IS CONJUGATED JUST LIKE "ELLE" OR "IL".

Hope this helps. Mason

June 27, 2012

@wmdutton: thank you for the most detailed and a very clear reply. It helped me understand the "on" concept, which is important, as it really seems to be very popular in modern French.

May 11, 2013

Bonjour quest,

I don't check this site very often anymore, but you are very welcome!

December 6, 2013

i don't understand point 2b:

2b.) If you wish to place emphasis on the fact that "we" are doing something, then it is not simply a matter of just saying "on va au marché," but "NOUS ALLONS au marché." EXAMPLE CONVERSATION: "On va au marché." "Qui va au marché?" "Toi et moi. Nous allons au marché."

can you please explain further if possible :)

December 5, 2013

Yes, I agree. After reading point 2b it is a little unclear what I have written. You could also say this:

Alternative answer for 2b:

If you read my example of in 2a of 5 people (including you) standing around discussing who is going to the Louvre, and only 2 of them (you and your friend Pierre) are going to the Louvre, someone NOT going to the Louvre might ask "Qui va au Louvre?"

You cannot answer them "On va au Louvre." in this case because not everyone involved in the conversation is going (only you and your friend Pierre are). You are still going to answer "we are going to the Louvre," (while pointing to yourself and Pierre) but in this case you have to specify that it is you 2 amongst the 5 people in this conversation and not everyone else, so you might say something like:

"Nous allons au Louvre." (pointing to yourself and Pierre), or "Pierre et moi. Nous allons au Louvre."

I hope this helps clarify point 2b.

Glad to see so many people interested in French. It is a beautiful language.

December 6, 2013

Thank you for that, I really appreciate it!

December 8, 2013

The conversation is intended to illustrate that "on" is not suitable in that context as the other party had to seek clarification. It would therefore have been better to have said "nous" in the first place.

December 5, 2013

then: "shall we call the dagughter" or "let us call the daughter" could be right?

March 28, 2014

Yes to both of your suggestions here. Admittedly, this sentence is a little awkward and you would probably not find yourself saying it very often or only in very specific situations. Here are a few scenarios using "on" as the pronoun in each case.

Scenario 1:

Question: "What should we do?" - "Qu'est-ce qu'on fait?"

Answer: "Let's call the girl/daughter." - "On appelle la fille."

Scenario 2:

Question: "Shall we call the girl/daughter?" - "On appelle la fille?"

Answer: "Yes. We (can/will) call her." - "Oui. On l'appelle."

Hope this helps.


March 29, 2014

This is a wonderful explanation, but I have a question.

Why do newscasters say things like "Nous sommes le jeudi 26 mars 2015" and not "On est" or "C'est"?

March 31, 2015

Newscasters don't use 'on' because they use formal French - 'nous' is used in formal settings.

Remember it like 'vous' and 'tu': 'vous' is formal, 'tu' is not. 'Nous' is formal, 'on' is not.

December 3, 2018

I can't thank you enough for this nuanced explanation.

I am wondering if the same holds true in other tenses: for instance would 'on' be generally used to express in English "we had gone to the theater"?

February 20, 2017

Wow! This helped SO much! Even after 4 years it the best explainer on this. Simple and thorough.

May 16, 2017

The above is an excellent treatment of the topic. two minor points : 1 - on is not used as an indirect pronoun, so sometimes that forces "nous" 2 - its owrth pointing out that there is an opposite regiater effect that seems to happen as well : "on" seems to be lower register. but in english terms one "one does " are very high register.

December 17, 2017


February 13, 2018

Thanks for the nugget of gold. I will treasure it.

April 15, 2018

"On" is an informal way to say "nous". My french friends even say it is strange to use "nous". Apparently it sounds like old people. Caution, "On" is formally 3rd person singular, So its: "On appelle ..", but "Nous appelons"

June 26, 2012

@Jean-Dino: this is obviously the origin and should be absolut correct in duolingo, but in a true conversation: "On doit appeler ...", does not mean that "(some)one must call", but we have to do so

June 27, 2012

Also, you know how in English, people tend to say "we", when they want to refer to a general population? It occurs often, whether you notice or not. So, "On" in French can mean "we" in this way as well. It refers to the general and the implicit, but it can be a very informal "Nous", also. Happy Learning and God Bless!

April 6, 2013

WMDutton: What a thorough and well-organized explanation. Thanks for taking the time to explain all of that to the rest of us. ^_^

September 22, 2012

So this is about clusivity ( The inclusive "we" vs. exclusive "we"?

The inclusive we in French is "on" and the exclusive we is "nous".

May 18, 2017

@fer84: "On doit appeler" can be also understood as "It is necessary to call..." implying that in fact we must call, so "on" does not surprise me here. But "on appelle" for "we call" seems weird.

June 27, 2012

P.S. Cortina Method's grammar notes state that the word "fille," when used to mean "girl" instead of "daughter," must be modified either by "jeune" (young) or "petite" (little). Copyright 1950, so perhaps it's out of date.

December 10, 2017

Related Discussions

Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.