Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: How the heck is 'on' used for 'nous' in French (The 'Egocentric On')
Question: Hi Guys, I'm trying to figure out how ''on + (3rd p. sing verb)'' functions as a replacement for ''nous + (1st p. plural verb)'' in French. « On est sur le point de partir. » ''We are about to go.'' (Versus « Nous sommes sur le point de partir. » ) « Nous, on est américains, et vous, vous êtes français. » ''We are American, and you are French.'' (Versus « Nous sommes américains, et vous, vous êtes français. » I understand how the word ''on'' developed to mean ''someone''. I also understand how you can refer to your self in the 3rd person (Tarzan like Jane!). I also understand that we use ''you'' to mean ''someone'' in English: ''How do you (does one) say ___ in French''. However, I don't see how you can make a singular ''someone'' work for a plural ''we''. I heard the origin is from ''working class'' French. I also heard that it could be that conjugating verbs with ''on'' is easier than with ''nous'' (Saves a syllable?). Perhaps its easier for an immigrant to use ''on'' than ''nous''? I agree it makes it easier for me to learn French. If, in English, someone asked ''Are you and your wife going home for Christmas'' and I answered ''yes, someone is'' they would be pretty confused. However, I can try to make it work in English: A mother telling a child: ''Someone is going to Disney World!'' means ''You (We) are going to Disney World!'' but this is a playful construction. A husband telling a wife ''Someone loves you'' meaning ''I love you'' is also playful. Obviously context makes the meaning clear in both cases, and I'm sure context makes it clear in French, too. ''on = nous'' still doesn't makes sense to me. Any thoughts? Wiktionary Reference for convenience: From Old French hom, reduced form of Old French homme (“man”) used as a pronoun, from Latin hominem, accusative form of homō (“man”). Its pronominal use is of Germanic origin. Compare Old English man (“one, they, people”), reduced form of Old English mann (“man, person”); German man (“one, they, people”); Dutch men (“one, they, people”). Pronoun on 1. One, people, you, someone (an unspecified individual: indefinite personal pronoun). On ne peut pas pêcher ici You can't fish here 2. (informal) We. On s'est amusé We had fun
Reply: I totally agree with Geoffrey. 'Nous' as a 1st person plural pronoun is today limited to writing and to very formal speech in all of Francophonie. Obviously, the use of 'on' for 1st person plural does raise some problems since the pronoun is also used as 3rd person impersonal pronoun, equivalent to 'one' in English. Nevertheless, pragmatic context is usually sufficient to disambiguate between the 'we' meaning and the 'one' meaning. Also, it is interesting to note that the 'stressed' 1st person pronoun in French is still 'nous'. So in French, you can get the following two sentences: 'Nous, nous partons' as well as 'Nous, on part' 'WE are leaving!', *'On, on part' being impossible. Hope this clarifies things... RAP
Reply From: Robert A Papen      click here to access email
Date: 05-Dec-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: How the heck is 'on' used for 'nous' in French (The 'Egocentric On')    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (05-Dec-2013)
  2. Re: How the heck is 'on' used for 'nous' in French (The 'Egocentric On')    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (05-Dec-2013)
  3. Re: How the heck is 'on' used for 'nous' in French (The 'Egocentric On')    Susan D Fischer     (05-Dec-2013)

Back to Most Recent Questions