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Nous, on, and l’on in French: What’s the difference?

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If you’re learning French, at some point or another you’ll start wondering whether there’s a difference in meaning between nous sommes and on est (“we are”). It seems like this point in time has come now – that means you’re progressing, so congrats on that!

Now back to the question: is there a difference between the two? And if there is, in what ways do they differ?

The short answer is that while there is an important difference between the two, you can’t ruin a sentence by using the word on instead of nous. That’s a relief, right?

Don’t click away just yet, though. It’s not always possible to use nous instead of on. While these two expressions are very similar in meaning, you would prefer one over the other in different situations.
Also, on isn’t always used to mean the personal pronoun “we”. While they are similar in meaning, you would prefer one over the other in different situations.

In addition to all that, being able to tell them apart makes the difference between an OK French speaker and a hats-off-to-this-person French speaker. Which one do you aspire to be?

(Kidding aside, it’s perfectly okay to say you’re fine with being OK. OK is good.)

Still, if you’re willing to go the extra mile (or yard), that’s great! Here is the long answer for you:

What does on mean, exactly?

On can be used to mean a number of different things.

On as an informal “we”

As mentioned above, you can usually substitute on for nous: on can be a more informal way to say “we”. This usage is very common, so you can’t make a huge mistake with this as far as you’re not using it in a letter to the Queen Emmanuel Macron (and he’d probably still get over it in a second).

That’s one way you can use it. Here are the others:

On as an indefinite pronoun – generic “we”

On is also an indefinite pronoun, which means that it doesn’t always refer to a specific person. (For instance, the English words “everyone”, “anybody”, “somebody”, and “nobody” are also indefinite pronouns.)

When you use it in French, it can function as a generic personal pronoun, just like the generic “you” or “we” in English. In English, you can use those pronouns and mean “people in general”.

A fun fact that explains this very neatly: on originates from l’homme, and it shortened to its present form over time. So its original meaning was truly “man”/ “humans”/ “people”.

On n’entend rien. = You can’t hear anything.

On peut dire que c’est vrai. = You can say it’s true.

On can also be translated as “they” or “people” in some contexts, like in the following sentence:

On dit qu’il est très heureux. = They say he’s very happy. / People say he’s very happy. / He’s said to be very happy.

On for extra emphasis

You can also add on after nous for extra emphasis: Nous, on est… = We

Meaning we, as opposed to someone else.

Nous, on est restées ici toute la nuit. = We stayed here all night.

Should I use on or l’on in French?

There are two main situations where you’d go with l’on and not simply on. (The l in l’on stands for the definite article, but that’s not the point.)

First of all, l’on can be used in writing as a formal version of on.

Think of it as a pair like ça and cela, where ça is used mainly in speech or texting, and cela is used primarily in writing. While the latter is considered to be more elegant, more formal, they basically mean the same thing: “that” as a demonstrative pronoun, used for verbally pointing at something.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use l’on in speech – in fact, sometimes you should. In some situations, you can opt for it to make pronunciation easier.

You’d be very right to think that this extra l is sneaked in whenever on is preceded by a vowel sound to prevent a hiatus, or the pronunciation of two vowel sounds right next to each other. In many cases, it is – but not always. Here is a useful guide to decide when to use it:

When should you use on?

at the beginning of a new sentence

Makes sense. You don’t have any other sound before it, so adding the extra l would be superfluous.

after dont

You should use on after dont (“whose”): dont on and not dont l’on. This is because dont on is easy to pronounce with a liaison to begin with, so you don’t need an extra l. (Dont on is pronounced [dɔ̃.tɔ̃], which is just fine.)

before a word that starts with an l

Again, the role of the added l is to make it easier for you to pronounce two words next to each other. If you have an l sound nearby, adding that bonus l would make it a bit trickier to pronounce – and that’s the exact opposite of what we’d want. So if you have a word starting with l right after on, you don’t add it.

When should you use l’on?

after words that end in a vowel sound (e.g., si, qui, ou, et…)

We’ve mentioned the hiatus, or two vowels pronounced back to back. When you pronounce the words listed above, the last sound you utter is a vowel. So to prevent a hiatus, you add an l. That’s it!

Just a reminder: what’s important here is pronunciation, and not spelling – so while et is written with a t, the thing that matters here is that the last sound you pronounce is a vowel.

after que, ce que and words that end in que (puisque, quoique, lorsque…)

While you’re never absolutely obliged to use l’on, it’s especially recommended when you combine on with que or words that end in que. First of all, que ends in a vowel sound – that in itself would be reason enough to add that extra letter.

However, there’s another good reason to do it: without the extra l, what you’re saying will sound exactly like con (even though it’s spelled qu’on). This can be used pejoratively in French, so it’s better to sneak in that l to prevent misunderstanding.

The gist

All in all, you’ll have to do two things to determine whether you need to use nous or on. First, you’ll check if you mean “we” as a generic pronoun (on) or as a run-of-the mill personal pronoun (nous). If it’s the latter, you can still go with on if it’s a casual conversation.

Need help with verb conjugation when your subject is on? You’re in luck! Check out our conjugation guide with on.

That’s it! Next time you’ll know how to use on (and l’on). And if you’re afraid you won’t – this post isn’t going anywhere, so feel free to bookmark it.

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