Apprendre la Langue Française (Part 83): les pronoms adverbiaux


The French adverbial pronouns y and en are so tiny that one might think their role in a sentence is not very important, but in fact quite the opposite is true. They are both extremely important in French.

Y refers to a previously mentioned or implied place; it is normally translated by “there” in English. Y usually replaces a prepositional phrase beginning with something like à, chez, or dans.

Are you going to the bank today? No, I’m going (there) tomorrow.
Tu vas à la banque aujourd’hui ? Non, j’y vais demain.

We’re going to the store. Do you want to go (there)?
Nous allons au magasin. Tu veux y aller ?

He was at Jean’s house. He was there.
Il était chez Jean. Il y était.

Note that “there” can often be omitted in English, but y can never be omitted in French. Je vais (I’m going) is not a complete sentence in French; if you don’t follow the verb with a place, you have to say J’y vais.

Y can also replace à + a noun that is not a person,* such as with verbs that need à. Note that in French, you must include either à + something or its replacement y, even though the equivalent may be optional in English. You cannot replace the noun with an object pronoun.

I’m responding to a letter. I’m responding (to it).
Je réponds à une lettre. J’y réponds.
Wrong: Je réponds, Je la réponds.

He’s thinking about our trip. He’s thinking about it.
Il pense à notre voyage. Il y pense.
Wrong: Il pense, Il le pense.

You have to obey the law. You have to obey it.
Tu dois obéir à la loi. Tu dois y obéir.
Wrong: Tu dois obéir, Tu dois l’obéir.

Yes, I attended the meeting. Yes, I attended (it).
Oui, j’ai assisté à la réunion. Oui, j’y ai assisté.
Wrong: Oui, j’ai assisté, Oui, je l’ai assisté.

I’m going to think about your proposal. I’m going to think about it.
Je vais réfléchir à votre proposition. Je vais y réfléchir.
Wrong: Je vais réfléchir, Je vais la réfléchir.

*In most cases, à + person may only be replaced by an indirect object. However, in the case of verbs that don’t allow preceding indirect object pronouns, you can use y, for example:

Pay attention to him.
Fais attention à lui, Fais-y attention.
Wrong: Fais-lui attention.

Note that y usually cannot replace à + verb.

I hesitate to tell the truth. I hesitate to tell it.
J’hésite à dire la vérité. J’hésite à la dire.
Wrong: J’y hésite.

I continue to read Balzac. I continue to read him.
Je continue à lire Balzac. Je continue à le lire.
Wrong: J’y continue.

Y is also found in the expression il y a.



En replaces the partitive article + noun or de + indefinite article + noun. It is equivalent to “some,” “any,” or “one” in English.

Do you have any bread? Yes, I have some.
As-tu du pain ? Oui, j’en ai.

He wants an apple. He wants one.
Il a envie d’une pomme. Il en a envie.

I don’t need an assistant. I don’t need one.
Je n’ai pas besoin d’un aide. Je n’en ai pas besoin.

In a sentence with a modifier, such as an adverb of quantity or a number, plus noun, en replaces the noun and the modifier or number is placed at the end of the sentence. Note that “of it” and “of them” are usually optional in English, but en is required in French.

There are a lot of rooms. There are a lot (of them).
Il y a beaucoup de chambres. Il y en a beaucoup.

I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough (of it).
Je n’ai pas assez d’argent. Je n’en ai pas assez.

I’d like two books. I’d like two (of them).
Je voudrais deux livres. J’en voudrais deux.

We bought 10 notebooks. We bought 10 (of them).
Nous avons acheté 10 cahiers. Nous en avons acheté 10.

En also replaces de + noun with verbs and expressions that need de. Again, in French, you must include either de + something or its replacement en, even though “about/of it” is usually optional in English.

What do you think about my idea? What do you think (about it)?
Que penses-tu de mon idée ? Qu’en penses-tu ?
Wrong: Que penses-tu ?

What are the consequences of this decision? What are the consequences (of it)?
Quelles sont les conséquences de cette décision ? Quelles en sont les conséquences ?
Wrong: Quelles sont les conséquences ?

Note that en usually cannot replace de + verb.

I decided to accept his offer. I decided to accept it.
J’ai décidé d’accepter son offre. J’ai décidé de l’accepter.
Wrong: J’en ai décidé.

I forgot to wash the car. I forgot to wash it.
J’ai oublié de laver la voiture. J’ai oublié de la laver.
Wrong: J’en ai oublié.

Note that en is also a preposition.


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