Y and En in French

This post talks about the true meaning of the words y and en in French. It sets out:

  • What they literally mean
  • When to use them
  • The situations in which you should not use y

Let’s start with the word ‘y’. It usually literally means any of the following:

  • To it
  • To them
  • At it
  • At them

It really is replacing the word à plus an inanimate object or inanimate objects (i.e. not living things).

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Je vais à Londres. = I am going to London/I go to London.

Could be replaced with:

  • J’y vais. = I’m going there/I go there. = Literally: I to it go.

Literally: I to it go.

  • Je suis à Londres. = I am in London.

Could be replaced with:

  • J’y suis. = I am there. = Literally: I at it am.

Verbs that use à as a preposition also can use y for example:

  • Je me prépare à l’entrevue. = I am preparing for the interview.

Could be replaced with:

  • Je m’y prépare. = I am preparing for it.

Although we say ‘for it’ in English, in French you literally say ‘to it’/‘at it’, so ‘y’ can be used.

Strictly speaking ‘y’ should not be used in relation to animate nouns (i.e. people, etc.), in French slang it is possible, for example:

  • Je crois à lui. = I believe him. = Literally: I believe to/at/in him.

In French slang could be replaced with:

  • J’y crois. = I believe him. = Literally: I believe to/at/in him.

What about ‘Il y a’?

The phrase ‘Il y a’ in English we usually translate as ‘There is’ or ‘There are’*.

Let’s take it apart to see what it literally means:

  • Il = He (or It)
  • Y = At it/At them
  • A = Has

Literally therefore ‘Il y a’ means ‘It has at it’ or ‘It has at them’.

You therefore need to be careful, because ‘y’ does not literally mean ‘there’.

*‘Il y a’ can also translate as ‘ago’ (e.g. Il y a deux jours = Two days ago), but this is not discussed further here.

The word ‘en’

Now let’s look at the word ‘en’. In most situations the word ‘en’ usually means ‘in’ or ‘to’, for example:

  • Je vais en France. = I am going to France/I go to France.
  • Je suis en France. = I am in France.

However, here we are looking at another meaning of ‘en’.

In this context we are looking at when the word ‘en’ usually literally means any of the following:

  • of it
  • of them
  • from it
  • from them

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Il parle de la maison. = He talks about the house/He is talking about the house.

Could be replaced with:

  • Il en parle. = He speaks about it. = Literally: He speaks of it.

The sentence:

  • Il descend du train. = He gets off the train. = Literally: He descends from the train.

Could be replaced with:

  • Il en descend. = He gets off it. Literally: He descends from it.

The word ‘en’ in this context is really replacing the word de plus a noun. Unlike ‘y’ it is acceptable and common to refer to both animate and inanimate nouns, for example:

The question…..

  • Combien de bouteilles avez-vous? = How many bottles do you have?

Could be answered as follows:

  • J’en ai trois. = I have three of them.

The question….

  • Avez-vous des frères? = Do you have any brothers?

Could be answered as follows:

  • J’en ai trois. = I have three of them.

I hope that this post has helped you to understand when you can use y and en in French. If you have any questions feel free to contact me.

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