French Pronouns: En vs. Y

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January 28, 2014

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Confused about French pronouns en and y?

Don't worry, French grammar may not be simple but it is indeed very logical and detail-oriented. In this article, let's try to remove once and for all any confusion you might still have over the French pronouns en and y.

french pronouns EN and Y

You have probably seen them many many times already when reading French text. But when to use them, which types of nouns can they replace? Just take 5 minutes to go through this article and you won't need to ask these anymore.

What exactly are en and y?

‘Y’ and ‘en’ are minuscule French pronouns, yeah, so minuscule that some think they can be removed from the sentence.

However, ‘y’ and ‘en’ are so powerful in the construction of French sentences for these two can change the entire sense of the sentence and sometimes the whole paragraph. Just like how bacteria can change the world if they are omitted.

So if you think your French sentences still don’t make sense after you have read and applied all the things that you have learned from all the French articles here in this website, this might help you a lot. 

Let's learn more about the pronouns y and en in French!

Y: Replaces Something but not Someone

You were probably taught that the English counterpart of ‘y’ is ‘there.’ Well, yeah, that’s the most popular or the easiest way of  how to use ‘y’ but actually, it’s just one of its many uses.

Y is a pronoun, and it is used to replace the structure à +noun.

Some of you might say "But that is the structure to be replaced by an indirect object pronoun". Yes, actually it looks very similar, but there is a difference.

Y can only be used to refer to inanimate objects, ideas or places, so it must replace something and not someone.

Example:

Nous allons à Paris demainWe are going to Paris tomorrow
turns as Nous y allons demain.We are going there tomorrow
Nous pensons à la situation We are thinking about the situation
turns as Nous y pensons We are thinking about it


EN: De + Noun

En in French is usually translated into of it or about it. But be careful, in English you can sometimes drop the "of it", but in French you should never drop the pronoun en.

En replaces the structure partitive article + noun or de + noun.

As tu du pain?Do you have any bread?
Oui, j'en aiYes, I have (some of it).
As-tu besoin d'aide?Do you need an assistant?
Oui, j'en ai besoin.Yes, I need one.

In a sentence with a number, en replaces the noun after the number and the number is placed at the end of the sentence.

Nous avons acheté cinq chocolats We bought five chocolates
Nous en avons acheté cinq.We bought five (of it)

En also replaces the noun after a quantity word (beaucoup, moitié…). The rule is the same with number, en replaces the noun and the quantity word is placed at the end of the sentence.

J'ai perdu la moitié de mes cartesI have lost half of my cards.
J'en ai perdu la moitiéI have lost half of them.

Here's a small tip

It is very useful to answer questions by using these pronouns, so try to practice them as much as you can in daily conversations. It will help you become more familiar with them.

Quick Recap

  • Y replaces the structure à + noun, it can replace anything except a person (or more precisely an animate object).
  • En replaces the structure de + noun. You could also think about this pronoun when you encounter a noun after a partitive article, a quantity word or a number.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about these pronouns.

Want more? Check out the French Grammar Mastery Course

P.S. You would be doing me a HUGE FAVOR by sharing it via Twitter or Facebook.

About the author 

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Instagram

  • Cher Frédéric, merci de cette explication claire! J’ai pourtant une remarque: ce que vous dites à propos de “y” (renvoie à un objet et non à une personne) s’applique aussi à “en”, non?

    Cordialement, Willem

  • Salut Frédéric,
    Suggestion éventuelle:
    tu pourrais dit que en remplace de+nom, y remplace tout le reste.
    Je compte sur ton aide: j’y compte. Je suis dans ma maison: j’y suis par exemple.

    • Bonjour Marianne, j’aime beaucoup cette idee de simplifier les choses. Mais je ne suis pas certain que dire y remplace tout le reste soit la meilleure idée. J’ai peur que les gens l’utilisent pour des cas comme: Je mange le pain de Jean. J’y mange. On dit Je le mange. Je ferai une mise à jour de l’article cet été.

  • Salut Frederic, si on utilise l’expression “je pensé à lui ça deviens –> j’y pense” alors à luí c’est une personne… Pas vrai?

    • Bonjour Cynthia, on ne peut pas dire “j’y pense” ici parce que “à lui” est déjà un pronom. Y = remplace une situation pas une personne. Par exemple: Je pense à notre rencontre = J’y pense (y= à notre rencontre). J’espère que vous comprenez 🙂

    • Grammatically:

      en is usually used for things introduced with de

      y for a place or things introduced with à

      penser de = to think about as in what is your opinion about something (en)
      penser à = to think about as in reflect on a subject (y)

      Est-ce que tu y penses? is more appropriate here.

  • Hello,

    je suis en ce moment “long term french substitute” a Cnicago et les debutants apprennent a utiliser “en” en repondant a ce genre de questions:
    il y a une television dans la classe? oui, il y en a une ou non, il n’y en a pas.
    Je leur ai dit que “en” remplacait l’objet direct dans ce cas. Y a t’il une autre explication a part que la question devrait etre posee autrement. Leur livre n’est vraiment pas terrible. Aucune consistence.
    Merci

  • Reagrding the example ‘nous y pensons’, would ‘nous le pensons’ also translate to ‘we are thinking about it’?

    Great article, thanks very much really cleared this up as it can be a very confusing topic.

    Merci!

  • I heard someone ask, ” J’en etais où ? ” I am wondering what the “en” refers to ? And why it is not “j’étais où ? ” i am fairly certain that she spoke correctly. It was from the tv show “Soda” with Kev Adams.

    • Hello Jay, it is like “where was I?”When in a conversation you switch from a topic to another and then back again to the previous topic and don’t remember where you stop your previous topic/conversation. Thx

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