Meaning And Functions Of Man And On For Denotation Of A Subject


The article studies the ways of explicating the semantic subject by personal indefinite pronoun man in German and personal indefinite pronoun on in French. The authors analysed the functions of man and on as well as subjective reasons why speakers use these pronouns for nomination. They used the method of semantic analysis, comparative and contextual analyses to scrutinize the meaning and functions of man and on. The investigation was done on the literary texts by Erich Maria Remarque, Pierre Louis Boileau, Thomas Narcejac in which the pronouns man and on are used to determine a doer. Indefinite personal pronouns of the third person man in German and on in French are distinctive by their wide semantic meaning: they can serve as markers of the first and second person. The referents to the mentioned above pronouns can be an indefinite, definite and generalized real doer. The specification of the doer is done according to the concrete context. In a sentence man and on always fulfil the function of a grammatical subject and the singular form can denote real plural subject. The personal indefinite pronoun man in German and personal indefinite pronoun on in French in speech serve as a reducing semantic subject. Studies dedicated to the peculiarities of speech phenomena like those of excluding the semantic subject in German and French fully coincides with the focus of anthropocentric scientific paradigm. Such phenomena create a kind of information base about linguistic self-identification of a person as the representatives of a certain culture.

Keywords: Functionpersonal indefinite pronounsemantic meaningsubject nomination


The research of the recent years conducted in the field of cognitive linguistics, pragmatic linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics and others displays a certain change in the interpretation of the Subject. This is largely connected with the revision of such core categories like action, speech act, intention, illocution, presupposition and others according to which the Subject is identified.

The Subject is mostly interpreted now as an active doer (passionary language/speech individuum). The passionary nature is heavily accented and now some linguistic units rarely associated with the Subject of communication are involved in the investigation of the matter (Fillmore, 1987; Malamud, 2012; Murashova, 2015; Oppenrieder, 2010; Pishwa, 1994).

As a result, in cognitive and pragmatic linguistics we review the meaning of the linguistic units which denote or indicate the Subject in various kinds of texts.

Problem Statement

In their research the authors used the method of semantic analysis, comparative method and contextual method which let them view the semantic meaning and functions of personal indefinite pronoun man in German and personal indefinite pronoun on in French from different angles.

The data for investigation was taken from German and French fictional texts by E. M. Remarque, P. Boileau, T. Narsezhak, where pronouns man and on are used for expressing the subject.

Research Questions

Personal indefinite pronoun man in German.

Classical German definition dictionaries interpret personal indefinite pronoun man as capable of denoting subject (single living being, person) or a group of subjects (living beings, people), accomplishing some action (Duden, 2019).

Besides the classical approach, in modern linguistics there exist several more approaches to identify and classify man.

According to one of them man is a semantic primitive, which provides the interpretation to the existing indefinite pronouns jemand, jedermann, jeder, beide, alle, etwas, nichts, alles, ein-, kein-, welch-, manch-, einig-, mehrere ) (Marschall, 1996, p. 96). Interestingly enough, all of them indicate an unknown or indefinite person or object and man is characterized as the most ambiguous.

According to another approach man is a special generalizing kind of personal general pronouns because it denotes, as a rule, a group of people, accomplishing some action (Haspelmath, 1997; Hoekstra, 2010), or one person as an accomplisher of the action (Siewierska, 2011). Viewing passionarity of a person as their essential characteristic, the followers of this approach advocate that man is a special kind of personal pronouns indicating an indefinite group of passionary subjects.

Within the limits of the third approach some principle differences of man are studied (Zifonun, 2000, p. 245). It differs from indefinite as well as personal pronouns; it is also capable of expressing personal meaning and passionary nature as a dominating component but only in the certain context.

The latter approach seems most adequate to us, so we have proved its relevance through the prism of literary texts.

Studying the realization of the pronoun man in the literary discourse of E.M. Remarque we came across its context similarity to pronouns ich and wir .

For example, the pronoun man denotes a subject which includes a group of other subjects and characterizes the action of the active subject identical to other subjects in similar extra linguistic context:

Ich blicke auf meine Stiefel. Sie sind groß und klobig, die Hose ist hineingeschoben; wenn man aufsteht, sieht man dick und kräftig in diesen breiten Röhren aus (Remarque, 2013, p. 24).

Inclusion of the addresser into the action in the given above excerpt is emphasized with the personal pronoun ich .

Man merkt, dass wir nahe an den Meeren sind, man wacht vor Kälte immer wieder auf (Remarque, 2013, p. 44).

Man, which is actualized in the excerpt twice is related to the personal pronoun wir in the post-position. The context meaning of man comes close to that of wir.

Both given above examples illustrate the inclusion of the speaker’s activity into that of a social group, a part of which the speaker represents at the current moment.

Endlich rief Katczinsky ihm zu: “Nun mach deinen Bouillonkeller schon auf, Heinrich! Man sieht doch, dass die Bohnen gar sind” (Remarque, 2013, p. 5).

Here we can talk about generalizing meaning of man because in the given above context it accumulates the activity of the addresser as well as of the addressee and actually any person put in the same situation. What is more, the realization of man in this context is a marker of conscious removing of the subject, who is aiming at avoiding direct indication to the doer.

An den Seitenflächen befinden sich Handgriffe, so dass man sie transportieren kann (Remarque, 2013, p. 7).

Here man denotes all people as potential doers (all, everyone), that is expresses a generalizing meaning.

Ich habe dir ja immer gesagt, dass man eine so gute Uhr nicht mitnimmt (Remarque, 2013, p. 12).

In the above excerpt the meaning is also generalizing and the described action can be related to any living being (all, everyone);

Während er bewusstlos war, hat man ihm seine Uhr gestohlen (Remarque, 2013, p. 12).

Man points to indefinite person accomplishing the action (somebody). The construction with man is used instead of passive voice but is not regarded as equal to verbal passive constructions because it underlines the active position of the subject.

From the point of view of syntactical and morphological grammatical structure, man is a stable unchanging form. Man is realized into speech in a nominative case singular and has the function of a subject accordingly. In other cases, suppletive forms of the indefinite pronoun einer are used.

Man ist aus den Baracken manches gewohnt, aber hier kann einem doch flau werden (Remarque, 2013, p. 12).

In accordance to the mentioned above man cannot be substituted for einer out of the context without any change in meaning because man denotes an indefinite number of people (one person, a group or the humanity as a whole) while einer points to only one indefinite individual in the speech context.

From the morphological point of view, man is singularia tantum but can be used with verbs or verbals which denote an action accomplished by several people ( miteinander bekannt sein, miteinander sprechen ). Einer is not used here.

Man ist zu wenig miteinander bekannt , um mehr zu tun, als etwas zu quatschen und abends Siebzehn-und-vier zu spielen oder zu mauscheln. Man spricht miteinander (Remarque, 2013, p. 138).

German pronoun man has one more distinctive feature which is will not be found with French on , for example. Man is always combined with a possessive pronoun of masculine gender sein .

Sehen ist ganz schön, aber wenn man seine Frau nach so langer Zeit wiederhat, will man , wenn es eben geht, doch noch was anderes (Remarque, 2013, p. 194).

This is connected with critical binary opposition: subject – masculine gender and object – neuter gender, which exists in German. The subject under consideration or a number of subjects in its turn can be of either masculine or feminine gender.

In every of the given above examples, the denotative nucleus man is a person (a living being) no matter whether one man or the whole mankind is meant (Remarque, 2013, p. 18).

One more proof to the given above idea lies in realizing man with reflective pronoun sich which denotes an active subject.

Man kann es nicht erklären. Man geht und denkt an nichts – plötzlich liegt man in einer Bodenmulde, und über einen spritzen die Splitter hinweg; – aber man kann sich nicht entsinnen, die Granate kommen gehört oder den Gedanken gehabt zu haben, sich hinzulegen (Remarque, 2013, p. 41-42).

Erde, mit deinen Bodenfalten und Löchern und Vertiefungen, in die man sich hineinwerfen, hineinkauern kann! (Remarque, 2013, p. 41).

Das Grauen lässt sich ertragen, solange man sich einfach duckt; aber es tötet, wenn man darüber nachdenkt (Remarque, 2013, p. 102).

Mir wird schwindelig, es ist nichts hier, woran man sich noch halten könnte. (Remarque, 2013, p. 110).

All in all in the investigated literary text discourse of E.M. Remarque the meaning of man denoting subject or subjects can be found in three variants:

  • generalising meaning (people without limitations in time and location)

Man schmeckt den Pulverqualm bitter auf der Zunge (Remarque, 2013, p. 39).

  • episodic meaning (a person or a group of people limited in time and location)

Es sind seine besten Stücke. «Wir können sie ja umtauschen«, schlägt Müller wieder vor, »hier draußen kann man so was brauchen» (Remarque, 2013, p. 14).

  • specific situational meaning

Franz Kemmerich sah beim Baden klein und schmal aus wie ein Kind. Da liegt er nun, weshalb nur? Man sollte die ganze Welt an diesem Bette vorbeiführen und sagen: Das ist Franz Kemmerich, neunzehneinhalb Jahre alt, er will nicht sterben (Remarque, 2013, p. 24).

Realization of the situational meaning of man can be followed by explicit involving of the subject-addresser into the fragment of the reality.

Es hat keinen Zweck mehr. Man kann ihn nicht überzeugen. Mir ist elend vor Hilflosigkeit (Remarque, 2013, p. 24).

Indefinite personal pronoun on in French

The pronoun on is one of the most widely used lexical unites in French which expresses most general and approximate idea about a doer (semantic subject). This pronoun, derived from Latin homo (Petit, 1981) (compare derivation of German man from substantive Mann (m) (François, 1984), demonstrates the existence of a mark which serves for denoting a person as an active doer of real and virtual worlds.

Using on in French testifies not only a person’s presence but also expressing human personality via speech.

As it is widely known, on first and foremost expresses an indefinite person. For example:

On a frappé à la porte. Je l’ai ouverte, c’était ma cousine.

Nevertheless, this pronoun is also used for expressing a definite (Muller, 1979) as well as a generalized subject (Gak, 2000).

For example :

  • Il dut perdre connaissance un court instant. Agenouillé dans les cailloux, je tenais sa main. Je n’avais jamais imaginé qu’on (je) pût être aussi malheureux (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p.16)

  • Elle poussa vers moi un journal déplié.

  • «On (tout le monde, tous) parle déjà de votre ami, sans donner de détails. Lisez. En page trois» (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 28).

  • Elle est revenue, souriante. Elle m’embrasse. «On (tu) a été bien sage? Devine ce que t’apporte? Des galettes» (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 28).

It should be mentioned that on contains only one feature of a semantic subject which is its animate nature.

A subject categorized this way is semantically deficient. Thus, the subject expressed by means of on has no gender characteristics. This pronoun due to its wide generalized meaning is a perfect example of language asymmetry of form and meaning.

Grammatically the pronoun on is related to the third person singular therefore when used in a sentence it agrees with a verb in the form of a third person singular; still in the context, it can be related to the first person (Grafström, 1969) as well as a second person. What is more, a singular form can refer to a plural number.

The examples are:

  • «Quel âge a-t-elle? chuchotai-je.

– Vingt-quatre ans.

– On (je) lui en donnerait seize. Elle est charmante» (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p.25).

  • Elle est revenue.

«Bernard!» cria Agnès. Venez! On (nous) a besoin de vous…. (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p.82).

  • Nous entendîmes les pas de Julia dans le corridor et les deux femmes, instantanément, changèrent de contenance. On (elles) avait l’habitude, ici, de faire front contre les intrus et la correction était plus forte que la haine (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p.78).

Contradictory nature of the pronoun on is manifested in the fact that despite its wide semantic meaning, in a sentence it can express only one function – that of the subject.

As the analysis shows the use of on in speech can be caused by some objective as well as subjective reasons.

  • The speaker doesn’t know who the real doer is; there is no relevant information to denote the doer as a definite one. For that reason, the speaker has to employ indefinite personal pronoun on. The synonyms to on in this case, can be quelqu’un (somebody) and an adjective certain(e) (some) in the preposition to the noun.

  • If the speaker uses on to denote people well known to them it accounts for some hidden pragmatic meaning like unwillingness to specify the doer due to some subjective reasons.

Thus intentional denotation of the semantic subject is characterized by pragmatic intention which presumes maximum vagueness of characteristic traits which make up the notion of a human.

In our opinion, using on in speech is a way of intentional explicit reduction of the semantic subject in French.

As mentioned above the referent to the deleted by means of on subject can be a definite, indefinite or generalized doer.

As to what type of referent the subject is related to, it becomes clear in the context within which the semantic subject is put.

A thought which travels from the unknown to the known is first formed by indefinite lexical units; however, as the information accumulates, the thought acquires a more concrete form of expression. Thus, an indefinite form of a pronoun gives way to a definite personal one.

For example :

On sonna, sur le palier. Je courus sans bruit jusqu’au grand salon, surveillant le vestibule sans être vu. Hélène reconduisait son élève , une grande fille à lunettes qui portait des partitions roulées sous le bras; elle introduisit un garçon d’une quinze années, qui rougissait en lui parlant et ne savait où mettre ses mains (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 35).

The search of a semantic subject, accumulating data about it leads to its specification and actualization if that is the intention of the speaker.

In personal generalized sentences on can take the position of grammatical subject (Chervoniy, 2019). In this case the speaker knows, however vaguely, who the semantic subject is. For example:

Si j’avouais que je n’étais pas Bernard, on me soupçonnerait fatalement de l’avoir tué pour prendre sa place (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 30).

With the help of generalization by combining own opinion with that of others the speaker enhances their argumentation. But through accenting all the attention on the argumentative effect the speaker imagines the real doer as one of the many without identifying them. For example : – J’aurais bien voulu, mais je ne dispose que de trios ou quatre jours. On ne fait pas ce qu’ on veut, dans la commerce (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 67).

In a situation of communication, the use of a generalized personal pronoun on fulfills a pragmatic function whose realization is done through phraseological means like proverbs and sayings. For example:

  • On apprend à tout âge.

  • On ne meurt qu’une fois.

  • On ne peut avoir le lard et le cochon.

To avoid repetition the pronoun on can replace some concrete explication of the subject of it ised to be lexically defined and therefore known to the communicants. Foe instance :

Et j’eus l’intuition profonde que je ne comptais vraiment pas, que je n’étais pour elles qu’un objet qu’ on se dispute, qu’ on se vole (Boileau & Narcejac, 1986, p. 78).

It should be noted that the pronoun on exists in the marginal zone on the crossroads of the expressive means of the subject. In other words, it stands in opposition to definite forms of expressing real doer (personal nouns, pronouns), to indirect nominations (metaphor, metonymy) and to implicit forms of nominating semantic subject (nomination, passive constructions).

Purpose of the Study

In the research, the attempt was made to analysed the functions of man and on as well as subjective reasons why speakers use these pronouns for nomination.

Research Methods

To achieve the analysed the functions of man and on as well as subjective reasons why speakers use these pronouns for the nomination, integral analytical apparatus was referred to, including the application of the semantic analysis, comparative and contextual analyses which allowed us to scrutinize the meaning and functions of man and on .

The analysis was based on the semantics of the signified notion and the pragmatics of speech was also taken into account.


Man is an indefinite personal pronoun which is used for the purpose of denoting subject without specifying its activity which represents it as a doer.

Etymologically man is connected with the noun human as well as man in Icelandic, Swedish, men in Dutch and on in French.

This connection is fixed in the denotative core of the pronoun.

A generalized model of man can be represented as the following: Man = indication to a person + generalizing indication to a doer + combination with a verb in the form of the third person singular.

For the specifications in meaning some context is needed.

Man has some peculiarities in denoting subject on all linguistic levels such as semantics, morphology, syntaxes and pragmatics.

The pronoun on as well man in German etymologically is connected with homo in Latin. In a sentence on always fulfils the syntactical function of a grammatical animate subject which holds the initial position in a French declarative sentence.

The referents to the pronoun on can be indefinite personal, generalized and definite semantic subject. Determination of the subject types expressed by on is done within the contextual communicative situation.


The mentioned above peculiarities differ man and on from all other pronouns, and this fact entitles us to prove their unique role in creating a class of indefinite personal pronouns in German and French.

The semantic width and active functioning of man and on in the process of communication entitles them to be one of the basic explicit forms of deleting semantic subject in German and French.

What with common tendencies in formation and functioning of the algorithms of the formal exclusion of the subject in generalizing utterances in different linguistic systems (including German and French) Man and On demonstrate certain differences in the nuances of contextual meanings. These nuances, conveyed by certain linguistic traditions or context, can reveal themselves as the information about the level of the subject generalization. In the majority of the analyzed contexts alongside with the anonymity of the subject, Man and On also express insignificancy of the subject referent to the speaker.

In the German and French linguistic systems Man and On demonstrate a certain syntactic status connected with the subjects of various quantity and level of determination. The mentioned above pronouns are expressed with the third person singular form regardless of the number of the implied persons.


The research was carried out with the financial aid of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) within the scientific project № 19-012-00062 “The Polyphony of the semantic subject (on the basis of the Russian, French, English and German languages) done in FSBEI HE “Rostov State University of Economics”; the leader of the project – PHD, head of the Department of German and French languages Alexander Chervoniy.


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28 December 2020

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Chervoniy, A., Murashova, E., & Demonova, Y. (2020). Meaning And Functions Of Man And On For Denotation Of A Subject. In N. L. Shamne, S. Cindori, E. Y. Malushko, O. Larouk, & V. G. Lizunkov (Eds.), Individual and Society in the Modern Geopolitical Environment, vol 99. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 178-186). European Publisher.