The subject pronoun on (from Old French om, homme "man") is equivalent to the English indefinite pronouns one, you, and they (as in, "One is pleased to see...", "You never know what will...", and "They speak French in..."). It takes third-person singular verb forms in the same way that il and elle do, and is used:
- In the same way as English "one", "you" and "they", where the subject is generalised or otherwise unclear or unimportant:
- « C'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron. » "It is by blacksmithing that one becomes a blacksmith."
- « penser qu'on a raison » "to think that you are right," i.e. "to think oneself right."
- As an extension of the above, it is often used to avoid the passive voice in French:
- « On me l'a donné. » " gave it to me." In English it would be more common to say, "It was given to me."
- To replace the subject pronoun nous in informal speech. In this case, on takes plural adjectives, even though it always takes a third-person singular verb. The corresponding reflexive object pronoun, se, is also third-person, but first-person possessive pronouns must be used when on meaning nous is the antecedent. The associated disjunctive pronoun in this context is nous.
- « On est sur le point de partir. » "We are about to go."
- « Nous, on est américains, et vous, vous êtes français. » "We are American, and you are French."
- « On se débarrasse de nos bagages ? » "Shall we get rid of our luggage?"
It is never used for the number one, or as in one of them. Like in English, numbers can be used as pronouns, and this is also true of the French word un(e):
- « Deux sont entrés et un est ressorti » "Two went in and one came back out."
On has limited pronoun forms: it has only a reflexive form, se, and a disjunctive form soi (which is also only used when the sense is reflexive). The pronoun quelqu'un ("someone") can sometimes be used to fill the roles of on:
- « Quelqu'un m'a dit... » "Someone told me..."