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ON - L'ON

'On' deserves a section of its own because it is a pronoun that often leaves the foreign reader perplexed. It does indeed cover a wide spectrum of possible meanings, depending on the context it is used in. In everyday spoken French, it is often used as a substitute for 'nous' (we), but in a formal written context, it will often translate as 'one' but also sometimes 'they', 'people' or 'someone'. Very often, a passive form in English can be used to convey the message. For instance, On parle français dans de nombreux pays africains could translate as 'People speak French in many African countries' or 'English is spoken in many African countries; similarly 'on m'a dit la vérité' could translate as 'someone told me the truth' or 'I was told the truth'.

Another point that requires clarification is the use of the l' in front of on in some cases. See below for some examples:

  1. Ce résultat est exceptionnel et l'on n'avait jamais enregistré un tel recul.
  2. C'est un phénomène inquiétant lorsque l'on dispute la Coupe d'Europe.
  3. Longtemps on a cru qu'il s'agissait d'un pays où l'on entrait facilement.

Can you see what this l' refers to? Probably not, for the good and simple reason that it is not a pronoun nor an article but it is only used here for euphonic reasons (so that it sounds nicer or is easier to pronounce). That means you can simply ignore it altogether when translating these sentences:

  1. This result is exceptional and one had never recorded such a drop.
  2. It is a worrying phenomenon when one competes for the European Cup.
  3. For a long time it was believed that it was a country which it was easy to get into.