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How to conjugate with “on” in French (like a pro)

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conjugate with on in two easy steps

Verb tables will tell you how to conjugate a French verb if the subject of your sentence is I, you, he/she, we, you, or they (je, tu, il/elle, nous, vous, ils/elles in French.) In this case, finding the right form is going to be as easy as one-two-three.

But what’s the deal with on? How do you tweak your verbs with on and how does it affect the adjectives used in your sentence? On is a widely used pronoun in French, so you’re going to be seeing and hearing it a lot.
Let’s make sure you can use it yourself, too!

Finding the right form is not complicated at all. It simply involves thinking through one more thing before checking that verb table. Read on (no pun intended) to find out.

If you’re not completely familiar with the different meanings on can assume, I’d recommend checking out this in-depth article to get a good understanding of how it’s used. If you know what on is and just need some help with conjugation, please proceed.

First, identify what type of on you have on hand

The pronoun on can be used in two main ways in French, and these are the following:

1. As a generic pronoun/ pronom indéfini

meaning “people in general”, just like the generic “you” or “we” in English. You’ll come across this type of pronoun in sayings and proverbs, for instance.
Quand on veut, on peut. = Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

2. As a personal pronoun signifying nous

meaning “we”, but expressed in a more colloquial, familiar way.

On se voit demain à six heures. = See you tomorrow at 6. (Literally: “We’ll see each other tomorrow at 6.)
On n’a pas assez de place. = We (…the two, three, four… etc. of us) don’t have enough space.

…and conjugate your verb(s) accordingly

1. It’s a generic pronoun

If you have the former type of on in your sentence (meaning the generic pronoun), you’ll have to conjugate verbs in the third person singular – just like you would with il / elle.

Comme on fait son lit, on se couche. = As you make your bed, so you must lie in it.

En enseignant, on apprend. = While we teach, we learn. (Seneca)

2. It’s an equivalent of nous

If you have identified your on as the equivalent of nous or “we” (and it’s not used in a generic manner but refers to specific persons), your verb will still have to be in the third person singular.

There’s one important addition, though. If you have any attributes linked to your subject, like an adjective, you’ll have to use its plural form – as if your sentence sported the personal pronoun nous:

On était naïves à l’époque. = We were naive at the time/ back then.

In this case, on refers to a group of women/girls. If the group had at least one male member, your sentence would look slightly different:

On était naïfs à l’époque. = We were naive back then.

On était travailleurs à l’époque. = We were hard-working back then.

Here, on is used to refer to a group that has at least one male member. If it was an all-female group, you’d say:

On était travailleuses à l’époque.

On est pressés./ On est pressées. = We are in a hurry.

That’s it! For more info on how to tweak adjectives in French, take a look at Frenchanted’s summary on the topic:

* You’ll just need to look for the mood and tense you want to use in your sentence, like indicative + present perfect a.k.a passé composé, and then check the verb form written next to the personal pronoun of your choice. Done! go back

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