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On vs. Nous

When would you use "on" to say "we" instead of saying "nous"? Ex: Nous voulons manger vs. On veut manger.

July 29, 2012



It seems to be an unofficial distinction. I would note a few things: first, "on" technically means "one", as, in English, 'you' often use the pronouns "one", "we", or "you": "One does it this way;" "We do it this way;" "You do it this way;" all in a very general sense of not referring to anyone in particular, but more the general practice - I find it quite refreshing that French uses only a single, unambiguous pronoun for this sense, rather that the three ambiguous possibilities 'we' use in English. Second, the use of "on" as a replacement for "nous" is quite informal, and so it very common in conversational French, but not appropriate in formal speech or writing. Third, when we say "nous", we are emphasizing a specific group of people, whom we might simply name, and imply that each person participates fully in the action described by the verb; when we say "on", we are describing the general situation, without any particular buy-in to the action. So, "Nous écoutions la musique" implies "We were all actively listening to the music", whereas "On écoutait la musique" implies "The radio was on, and so we were, by default, more or less listening to music." So, "On écoutait le radio, et nous chantions" means "The radio was on, so people were generally listening to it, and we few in particular were singing along."


The top rated answer by wmdutton in this earlier thread - http://duolingo.com/#/comment/23734 - is a very good treatment of this question I think.


Small update to the format of the link above: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/23734


I am not an expert on the issue. However, from what I have heard, "On" can be used as the subject pronoun in cases in which the subject is not specific. For instance, it's the equivalent of "One may say....." (One being 'on') or "We sometimes tend to....." ('we' being 'on' when including yourself in a non-specific group). I hope this brings a bit more light to the subject, and if I've said anything faulty, someone please correct me!


You can substitute "on" for the personal pronoun "nous" in spoken, familiar situations. You might turn up at home and announce: "On veut manger" - meaning you are off the the kitchen to help yourselves to some food, but not if you are making a reservation at a restaurant. There are other uses of "on" which are always correct, when the subject of the sentence is indefinite: an unknown person or persons - people in general - Eng, "someone" or "anyone".


Thanks for explaining!


Having lived in a French country, I've found that mostly you can use "on" when you want to speak informally, say, among friends Then, I would use "nous" in more formal situations (speaking with girlfriend's parents, professors, bosses, etc)


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.


so use " one " as you would il /elle in that you say on veut as you would say il veut ,elle veut? ....Do they actually use nous? ...as in ...nous vuolons deux verres de vin s'il vous plait....or is the young lady in the restuarant ging to be annoyed that I used "Nous" instead of "On "

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