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Using "on" as "we"

I am well aware that, in conversation at least, it is becoming increasingly rare to use "nous", many speakers prefer the "on" construction. I have been told that, when that happens, the rest of the sentence agrees with the implied "nous": "On est allés au cinéma, on prend notre voiture."

One website stated flatly: "Keep “on = nous” in your head all the time. Ignore everything else, as the rest of the phrase stays exactly the same." added This website is run by a young French woman, not some anglo academic, ha.

That seems quite clear. However, I find I hesitate in the case of reflexive verbs. I would appreciate if someone can confirm. Is it:
On se dépêche. On doit se laver.
On nous dépêche. On doit nous laver.

May 3, 2020



It would be

"On se dépêche" and "On doit se laver".

"On nous dépêche" is wrong, and "On dois nous laver" would mean that "someone has to wash us" (not "we have to wash ourselves")


Oh, thank you. I am far from fluent, but I did feel, somehow, despite the quoted website's certainty, that it sounded wrong with "nous".

And I hope I don't sound as if I am arguing with you, but I am still a little confused. If, in context, "on prend notre voiture" is understood to mean "we are taking our car" and not "someone is taking our car", how is it that the same doesn't apply to the "on" in "on doit nous laver"?

Is it just One Of Those Things? Or am I missing some obvious distinction between the two?


Late answer, but yes. "on prend notre voiture" means that we are taking our car. "on prend sa voiture" will generally mean that we are taking his/her car.


I believe that both of the following sentences can be used to express "We speak French", but the latter sentence, when used, is mostly used in spoken, informal conversation.

--- "Nous parlons français"

--- "On parle français"


I totally get that, and that the "on" version is informal, although, I gather, extremely widespread. More than one person, in their blog or video, says that they "never" use "nous" at all in spoken French.

My concern is specifically about the use of "on" in this way when using a reflexive verb.

I heard about the use of "on" for "we" some time ago. I only later learned that, when doing so, related words in the sentence change to reflect the plural meaning. The conjugated verb stays singular, but adjectives, participles, and personal pronouns shift - e.g.: "On est contents. On est allés au cinéma, et on prend notre voiture."

And the question is, what happens with a reflexive verb? Presumably, the conjugated verb stays singular, but what about the second pronoun (on se [verb]/on nous [verb])? What about when the reflexive verb is not the conjugated verb (On peut/on doit se[verb]/nous [verb])?


With a reflexive verb you need to keep "se" and not "nous", just like the conjugated verb stays singular, the "se" remains "se":

  • On se lave, on se parle, on se voit
  • On peut se laver, on peut se parler, on peut se voir
  • On doit se laver, on doit se parler, on doit se voir

We say "on prend notre voiture" and not "on prend sa voiture" because "notre voiture" is not part of the verb anymore, if we say "on prend sa voiture" it means we take his/her car

Not so easy to explain, I hope it makes more sense :)


Thank you, Estelle, for that plain, simple answer! May I assume you are in fact francophone?


De rien Diana! Yes I am actually French, I was curious to see how people learned it which led me to the French from English discussions :)


Je ne sais pas. (Le français n'est pas ma langue maternelle.) Mais c'est une bonne question.

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