Question regarding the use of "On" in French


I’ve heard that the “nous” form of the verb is used less frequently now in spoken French and that “on” is much more popular. Bur I’m not sure how to use on. Is it always with the 3rd Person singular ending (he/she/it) ? For example instead of saying : "Parlons français (Let’s speak French) I simply say On parle français. But I’m not sure if “On” is always used with the third person singular of the verb. I simply want to say “Let’s…” is whatever way is normal now. I look forward to your feedback.

First, a point of clarification: you’re confusing the two uses of the first person plural.

If you say “Parlons français,”, that is the polite imperative: “Let’s speak French.” This form is never used with the pronoun “nous”.

If you want to say “We speak French”, then it’s “Nous parlons français.” Using “nous” means it is not the polite imperative.

The “on” form is always the equivalent to “nous”. So “on parle français” is the same as “nous parlons français”. It always uses the third person singular of the verb, never the first person plural. So you would not say “on parlons français.”

So far as I know, “on” is not used to mean the polite imperative equivalent to “parlons français.”

Thanks Northern Piper for that very helpful clarification.

De rien. :slight_smile:

Yes, a given verb is conjugated the same with on as with il/elle.

“One” is the English equivalent. As in “one speaks French.” But normally it comes across stilted in English and we don’t really use it. You really have to wear a lorgnette to pull it off.

The imperative can be conjugated with tu, vous, and nous. It doesn’t make much sense with the other pronouns.

But the French use “on” the way Americans use a hypothetical “you.” An American would ask “How do you do this?” A Frenchman would ask “Comment fait-on ca?”

Etymologically, “on” comes from the latin “homo” (man). So, a sentence like “comment fait-on ça?” originated in “how does a man do that?”. That’s the reason why the third person is used with “on”.
Properly, “on” is used to refer to hypothetical people, as you said, or unknown people (“On a volé ma voiture” : “someone stole my car”), or people in general (“En France, on parle français” : “In France, people speak French”).
“On” used to mean “nous” isn’t technically proper, but is probably more common than the proper form. You’re way more likely to hear “On est allés à la plage” than “Nous sommes allés à la plage” (We went to the beach).

This last example makes me think that despite the verb being conjugated at the third person, the past participle stays plural when “on” is used to replace “nous”. In fact, as far as I can tell, the verb being used at the third person is the only thing that changes in a sentence when you replace “nous” by “on”. For instance, you would say “on a pris nos vêtements”, not “on a pris ses vêtements” for “We took our clothes”.

To tell someone you speak French (or any other language) when in that respective language area is a bit pedantic and out of context. It’s like the typically dumb tourist question in starting a conversation “Do you speak English”. Unless you’re taking a survey of who does and who doesn’t this is unlikely to be the information you wish to receive, so the question is peculiar.

If you speak French, do so. If you’re trying to speak French to someone and they respond capably in English, I’m not sure why you’d care, but if you want to needlessly insist, say

Pourrions-nous parler francais

(the conditional tense which politely means “can we” or “might we please”, not from an ability standpoint but as a polite suggestion, speak in French)