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Agreeing with On

In our previous lesson, we learned that the indefinite pronoun on is quite versatile and easy to use, as it always takes a verb in the third person singular regardless of whether on means “one," "we," "you," "they," or "people." What is not so simple, however, is how we should apply agreements when on refers to more than one person. Grammarians still have conflicting views on the matter. In any case, let's find out what happens with on in everyday speech. 


When on is used as an indefinite pronoun, in the sense of “one” or “people,” it usually does not trigger agreement with adjectives or past participles. In other words, it doesn't trigger agreement when it's being used to make generalizations—for example, when talking about traditions. In her video on the ancient custom of duals for honor, Patricia uses the construction on (one) + past participles vexé (offended) and blessé (hurt), which remain singular:


Quand on était vexé, quand on était blessé dans son honneur, on provoquait le coupable en duel à l'épée.

When one was offended, when one's honor was hurt, one would challenge the culprit to a sword duel.

Captions 3-5, Le saviez-vous? Le dernier duel à l'épée pour l'honneur en France

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The same is true when on is used in a proverb or set expression. Although on translates as “we” in this example, “we” is meant in a general sense:


On n'est pas sorti de l'auberge !

We aren't out of the inn [out of the woods]!

Caption 2, Le saviez-vous? "On est pas sorti de l'auberge!"

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Likewise, when on represents a collective entity, as in “we as a nation," the subject is not readily definable and therefore no agreement is necessary:


On a des racines françaises, mais on était marqué par l'Amérique.

We have French roots, but we were marked by America.

Caption 1, Le Québec parle aux Français - Part 5

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So far so good. We have learned that adjectives and past participles do not take agreements in the presence of on as an indefinite pronoun. Now let's find out what happens when on stands for more than one specific person. 


Although purists are still debating the matter, the consensus is that adjectives and past participles can agree in gender and number with the person(s) that on represents, as long as the implied subjects are identifiable. (Read this article to learn more.) In this case, on is synonymous with nous (we), which generally is only used as a definite pronoun, with identifiable subjects.


In fact, in casual speech it's common to combine the two in the same sentence: Nous, on + verb. In this case, there is no doubt that on is synonymous with nous:


Nous, on a bloqué le R.E.R., les moyens de transports, les nationales.

We, we blocked the R.E.R. [regional train], the means of transport, the main roads.

Caption 29, Interviews à Central Park Discussion politique

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Since auxiliary avoir does not trigger agreement, let's see what happens with auxiliary être (to be), which does:


Nous, on était bloqués dans le R.E.R.

We were stuck in the R.E.R.


In this case, the past participle agrees with nous, so we add an to bloqué to make it plural.


Here is another example where on means nous. In this example, on and nous refer to two singers who are proud to be nominated for the Grammy Awards. Hence, the adjective fières takes the feminine plural as it agrees with the implied subject, the female singers:


Nous vivions tous les deux ensemble... Alors on est quand même très, très fières, en tant que Françaises, très, très fières  d'avoir été nominées au Grammy Awards

We were both living together... So anyway we are very, very proud, as French people, very, very, proud  to have have been nominated for the Grammy Awards

Captions 24-26, Les Nubians Présentation

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Sometimes it is not always easy to identify who on stands for. Here are two similar examples with the phrase on serait capable(s) (we’d be capable) to illustrate the difficulty. In the first video, Elisa and Mashal are talking about what the two of them would be capable of, such as daring to show up in an evening dress at a job interview: 


T'imagines! -On serait capables.

Can you imagine! -We could do that.

Caption 69, Elisa et Mashal CV

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Capable takes an here because it's referring to the two speakers—and only them. In the second example, however, the person is speaking on behalf of all Spanish speakers, including herself. This on is a collective plural in a general statement, so no agreement is necessary:


On serait tout à fait capable de le parler très correctement.

We would be totally able to speak it very correctly.

Caption 19, Les Nubians Les langues

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Now let's discuss on combined with a possessive adjective. How do you decide which pronoun you should use? First you will need to see if on is acting as an indefinite pronoun or whether it stands for more than one specific person. You need to rely on context to help you. In the following video, the speaker does not include himself in the statement. He is talking about what other “people” (winemakers) are doing, so he uses the singular possessive adjective son


À Paris, on fait son vin et on a ses propres productions.

In Paris, people make their wine and they have their own productions.

Caption 25, Lea & Lionel L Le parc de Bercy - Part 2

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But sometimes you'll even see on used with the possessive form of nous, notre:


On force ainsi notre cerveau à être plus attentif et plus actif.

Thus we force our brains to be more attentive and more active.

Caption 41, Le saviez-vous? Les bénéfices de la dictée

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Though Patricia is making a general statement, thus using on instead of nous, she may have chosen notre over son to sound more informal (just as "we force our brains" sounds more informal than "one forces ones brain").


Here is an example with on + nos (the plural of notre) in which on refers to a group of specific people. Victoria, the proud owner of one of the last herbalist’s shops in France, talks about what she and her staff have on offer: 


Ensuite on a tous nos bonbons.

Then we have all our sweets.

Caption 80, Victoria dirigeante de Millymenthe

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On a fini notre leçon sur « on ». On espère que vous avez tout compris ! (We've finished our lesson on on. We hope you understood everything!) If you need more help, fear not. Des « on », on en trouve partout dans nos videos sur Yabla. (You'll find lots of ons in our Yabla videos.)


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