The French Pronouns y and en

Confused about French pronouns y and en? In this article, we'll share with you how to use the pronouns y and en in French correctly.


Compare English & French

Let’s look at a few French phrases and their English translations:

1. Je vais y mettre ces fleurs. I’m going to put the flowers there.
2. Elle y est allée. She went there.
3. Nous y réfléchissons. We’re thinking about it.
4. On y va ? Shall we go (ø)?
5. Vous en prenez tous les jours. You have some every day.
6. Il en a déjà mangé un peu. He already ate a little (of it).
7. Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez ? What do you think (of it)?
8. Ils s’en doutaient. They suspected as much.
9. Va-t’en ! Go away!
10. Il y en a combien ? How many (of them) are there?

All of these sentences involve use of the pronouns y and en, which are object pronouns that refer to things, although we can use en when referring to groups of people, which we will get to in a bit. In the above sentences, y and en may be translated in a variety of ways, depending on their context. Y can be translated as “there”, “about it”, and ø [nothing]; en can be translated as “some”, “of it” or “of them” (which can be eliminated entirely from the English phrases), and ø for idioms that use the pronoun en. When we compare the French and English versions of these phrases, we see that a lot more elimination of pronouns can happen in English, which reminds us that word-for-word translations are not always elegant, or even possible.  

The French Pronoun "y"

The pronoun y often replaces à + an object. If we wanted to use a noun rather than a pronoun for phrase #2 above, we could say “Elle est allée à Paris” rather than “Elle y est allée”. Like other object pronouns, the pronoun y is placed before the conjugated verb in both simple and composite tenses and before the infinitive when it is the object of the action designated by the infinitive verb, as in phrase #1 above. When appearing with other object pronouns, y follows personal pronouns, as well as la, le, les, lui, and leur, but precedes en. We see the use of y together with en in phrase #10.

As a complément de lieu, the pronoun y can also replace à la, à l’, au, sur, sous, dans, chez, devant, etc.  + an object. Looking at phrase #1, “Je vais y mettre ces fleurs”, we can name the place where the flowers are being put instead of using a pronoun: “Je vais mettre ces fleurs dans un vase”. Another example would be using the pronoun y to replace à la gare in the sentence “On arrive à la gare”, giving us “On y arrive”. We can do the same for “Le sac est sous la table”, giving us “Le sac y est” and “La fête aura lieu chez Nadja” for “La fête y aura lieu”.

To signal departure, we use y as a pronoun with the verb aller, even when the y does not replace anything specific. We see this in phrase #4 above, “On y va ?” which translates simply as “Shall we go?” Another example can be seen in the phrase “Il faut que j’y aille”, which simply means “I have to leave”.

Y can also replace à + a clause, which often happens with verbs that take à as a preposition, e.g., “Nous réfléchissons à ce que vous avez dit” can become “Nous y réfléchissons”, phrase #3. Look closely at contractions involving à that illustrate the same use of y, e.g., “Tu t’es très intéressée au discours”, which can become “Tu t’y es très intéressée”; “Elles sont parvenues à leurs fins” which can become “Elles y sont parvenues”.

The French Pronoun "en"

The pronoun en acts in much the same way as y, except that it is associated with the preposition de. This means it is used often when referring to quantity, since these frequently involve partitives (which use de + a definite article).  Thus, for phrase #5, we could say ”Vous prenez des vitamines tous les jours” for “Vous en prenez tous les jours” or, as with phrase #6, we could be more specific about quantity, saying “Il a déjà mangé un peu de fromage” for “Il en a déjà mangé un peu”. This works for other expressions of quantity as well, e.g., “Elle a acheté un kilo de myrtilles” can become “Elle en a acheté un kilo”. Similarly, we can use en to replace a noun that is preceded by a number, e.g., “Nous avons trois avocats” can become “Nous en avons trois”. We can also use en when being vague about quantity, as we do when referring to groups of people, e.g., “Avez-vous beaucoup d’amis ?” for which we could say “En avez-vous beaucoup ?” This is also the case for more abstract ideas, e.g., “Est-ce qu’elles ont quelques idées ?” to which we could respond: “Oui, elles en ont”.

As with y, we can use en when referring to a place, since we often use the preposition de to show origin or point of departure, e.g., “Nous arrivons des Caraïbes” can become “Nous en arrivons”. Similarly, we can avoid repeating “à Montréal” by using the second en in the following phrase: “On envoie 10 millions en impôts à Montréal, mais il en vient 12 millions”.

Another characteristic of en that is similar to y is its use with clauses introduced by a preposition, in this case de. This often occurs with verbs followed by the preposition de, e.g., penser de, décider de, and s’occuper de. Thus the phrase “Qu’est-ce que vous pensez du film ?” can become “Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez ?” as we see in phrase #7. The idiomatic pronominal verb used in sentence #8, se douter, also takes the preposition de, which could give us this sentence, were we to replace the pronoun en with de + a nominal phrase: “Ils se doutaient de leurs motifs cachés”. As with the use of y and the verb aller, “s’en douter” can take on a meaning that is less precise.

We see similar patterns with expressions involving de, such as avoir besoin de, avoir peur de, and avoir envie de. Thus “Elle a besoin de la voiture pour faire les courses” can become “Elle en a besoin pour faire les courses”.

The same thing occurs when we use adjectives followed by de, e.g., être capable de, être ravi(e) de, and être désolé(e) de. Referring to the first of these, we have the phrase, “Était-il capable de la remplacer ?”  to which we can respond: “Oui, il en était capable”.

Looking at phrase #10 above and its translation, we see that en follows y in the order of pronouns. This is true even when using the fixed phrase “Il y a”, which is used to point things out.

Affirmative imperative verbs precede objects, so with imperatives, y and en follow the verb rather than precede it. In phrase #9, which uses the idiomatic pronominal verb s’en aller, we see that the en does not have to refer to a specific place, which is similar to the use of y and the verb aller in phrase #4. Notice that while the personal pronoun normally changes to toi in the second person singular conjugation of pronominal imperatives, it becomes t’ when followed by y or en. This is also illustrated by these lines: “Je n’ai goûté jusqu’ici nulle joie : / J’en goûterai désormais, attends-t’y” (La Fontaine, Contes, “Le Cuvier).

The pronouns y and en may seem complex, but their uses are actually quite formulaic, so having a good grasp of the structures in which they appear gives a solid foundation to work off of when using them. Otherwise, learning a few stock phrases including y and en will help you incorporate them into your everyday speech and recognize them when listening to the French language.

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