In a previous post, I detailed a friendly argument I had with a Paris-based French teacher over the current use of the French pronoun ON to replace ILS or ELLES in modern spoken French. The argument ended with the remark by this teacher that in contemporary Parisian French, ON is used only to replace NOUS or as an impersonal pronoun, e.g. equivalent of the English pronoun “One”.
I beg to differ. But let me first state that I certainly agree with this teacher that the dominant usage of French pronoun ON is to replace NOUS. However I want to show here that the other use of this pronoun to replace ILS and ELLES is alive and well.
A real-life example of ON for ILS
We don’t have to go far. Here is a link to an article dated November 4, 2016 on the website of the weekly French newsmagazine, L’obs. I’m not sure how long this link will be active.
The article is about the trial of two doctors accused of medical negligence in the death of a young girl in a hospital seven years ago.
The headline shouts in big bold characters:
Deux médecins jugés après la mort d’une fillette : “On a tué ma fille”
How can we translate this headline? The first part is pretty simple: “Two doctors on trial after the death of a young girl.”
The pronoun “On” in the second part is the problem. Who does it refer to? Notice that the phrase is in quotation marks. As we will see below, it’s the mother speaking. So it can’t be NOUS. Could we say: “One has killed my daughter”? Pretty awkward. Another solution could be: “My daughter was killed”.
I think the clear solution is simply: “They killed my daughter”. The “They” of course referring to the doctors on trial.
Let’s look at the other ON’s in the article. Here is a clear example of ON for NOUS:
Je suis en colère. On attend ça depuis 7 ans…”, confie à BFMTV la mère de Camille. “Que justice soit faite pour notre fille”, réclame-t-elle.
Here are two interesting ON’s. The mother is speaking, and this is the origin of the phrase in the headline.
Ça a été une négligence totale. On me l’a tuée. On a tué ma fille.
(If you read the original article, you will probably see “On me la tuée.” There is a typo here. I’ve inserted the missing apostrophe.)
What is the best translation? As I pointed out above, the ON here is not “We” or “One”. A possible translation is:
“It was total negligence. She was killed. My daughter was killed.”
Not bad, but I argue that the following translation best reflects the angry tone of the mother:
“It was total negligence. They killed her. They killed my daughter.”
Here the ON is substituting precisely for ILS “they”.
Finally, here are four ON’s for NOUS: (I’ve put them in bold)
C’est très dur, tout le monde nous pose la question : ‘et alors, il en est où le procès pour votre fille ?’ On dit qu’on est toujours en attente. On ne fera jamais le deuil de notre fille, mais voilà, ça permettrait de passer à autre chose, depuis sept ans on attend ce procès.”
(In passing, note that the speaker could easily have substituted ON for “tout le monde”,)
Why is the French pronoun ON so widely used?
As I mentioned in my original post, in my opinion the fundamental reason for the widespread use of ON is the grammatical simplicity. The same pronoun and verb conjugation can be reused in many different contexts instead of a lot of complicated verb forms.
In fact, if you look at all the verb forms in the phrases above, you will notice that with one exception, “je suis en colère.”, all the verbs are in the third person. This tells us of course that when you study French verb conjugations, those third person forms should be a priority.
The catch in all this is that you really have to know what you’re doing. You must be very careful with the less frequent uses of ON.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.