How To Give Orders In Spoken French With “On”

You never know where inspiration for a post on speaking French will come from.

I was riding my bicycle in Montréal to a French class today when I came to the corner of University and Milton streets where there is always an incompatible mix of student pedestrians from McGill University, bicycles  and automobiles.

Today there was a portly police officer trying to help the flow of these three conflicting streams of traffic. As I started to cross the intersection on my bicycle, the officer barked out:

On attend les piétons.  (Wait for the pedestrians.)

Ever the linguist, I couldn’t help thinking why did the officer choose this formulation of her order.

Giving orders with imperative mood

Students of French learn that orders, instructions and commands are usually given with a verb form in what is called the imperative mood. Conjugation tables give three forms of the present imperative for the verb attendre:

attends (wait, informal you)
attendez (wait, formal you)
attendons (let’s wait)

That officer could have easily said: Attendez les piétons. And perhaps added: s’il vous plaît (please.)

This is perfectly good French and very common. The officer could also have used some very formal forms such as:

Veuillez attendre les piétons  (Please wait for the pedestrians)
Prière d’attendre les piétons (Kindly wait for the pedestrians)

If these were written  instructions in a user manual for example, you might see:

Attendre les piétons (wait for the pedestrians)

In this construction, the infinitive form of the verb is used is used as an alternative to the usual imperative forms. This form is often used in formal documents because it is perceived to be more neutral than the usual imperatives.

Giving orders with ON

But the interesting thing here is the fact that the police officer used the third person on form.  In spoken French, this pronoun has nearly completely replaced the subject pronoun nous (we) with its associated conjugation.

For example, on pense (we think), on mange (we eat), on dansait (we were dancing), on croyait (we believed) are much more common than nous pensons, nous mangeons, nous dansions and nous croyions. I think that the complexity of the conjugated forms of nous compared to the simplicity of on is a factor here.

On is also used to mean “people in general” or to form a passive voice. For example, one could say:

Au Canada, on parle deux langues officielles. (In Canada, two official languages are spoken.)

However, the example we are studying here illustrates perfectly a third use of on to mean “you.”  This is used nearly always with orders or commands and can refer to one or more persons.

Here are examples of some parallel forms:

Calmez-toi     On se calme  (Calm down)
Ne bougez pas   On ne bouge pas (Don’t move)
Ne parlons plus      On ne parle pas (Let’s not speak)
Tenez-vous la main   On se tient la main (Hold hands)

When do you use the on form? This form is very often used with children. It also has an element of neutrality about it and is not as direct as the vous or tu form.  But most of the time, it is totally interchangeable with the ordinary imperative forms.

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