When to use 'en' and 'y' in French

Posted by Josh on 18th Jul 2023 in the blog in the category

They're just two small pronouns, but ‘en’ and ‘y’ cause considerable confusion among learners of French. You'll come across them constantly, and yet we do not have an exact equivalent for these words in French, which is why English-speaking learners in particular tend to struggle.

But don't let that put you off! It's actually quite simple to get the hang of 'en' and 'y', and the fact that they crop up everywhere means you’ll be able to get plenty of practice with them.

So let’s take a look at these pesky – albeit useful – pronouns.

'En'

The closest translation of ‘en’ in English would be ‘of it’. It can be used a shorthand way of saying 'de + noun', as long as the noun has already been specified. In French we usually put ‘en’ before the verb (with certain exceptions which you'll find at the bottom of this blog). Let's look at a few examples of 'en' in action.

'Would you like a hand?' 'No, I don't need it (lit. have need of it).'

'Voulez-vous un coup de main ?'
'Non, je n’en ai pas besoin.'

'I have some chocolates. Feel free to eat one.'

'J’ai des chocolats. N’hésitez pas à en manger un.'


'How many bags would you like?' 'None, thank you, I already have two (of them).'

'Combien de sacs aimeriez-vous ?' 'Aucun, merci, j’en ai déjà deux.'


As you can see from these last two examples, in English we sometimes leave 'of it' or 'of them' to implication, particularly when referring to a number, for example 'one of them', 'two of them', etc. Note however that you cannot do this in French – the 'en' is always necessary.

'En' is most often found preceding verbs that take 'de'. For instance, ‘parler de’, ‘continuer de’, ‘avoir besoin de’ all take ‘en’ in this context. The same goes for 'venir de', which we would translate into English as 'to come from'. So 'I come from there' would translate to 'J'en viens'.

You’ve probably also seen ‘en’ used as a preposition, meaning 'in' or 'by', for example 'en passant' ('in passing') or 'en France' ('in France'). In this instance, ‘en’ is an entirely different word, with a different etymology, and the similarity of these words is just a coincidence – don't get them confused!

'Y'

Like 'en', the closest translation of 'y' into English would be 'of it'. The difference is that we use ‘y’ with verbs and phrases that are followed by ‘à’, rather than ‘de’. For example, 'penser à', 'decider à', etc. (Note that many of these verbs, such as 'decider' and 'penser', can be used with 'de' too – pay careful attention to which is the correct preposition.)

Take a look at the following examples:

'Do you play chess?' 'No, I don't (play it).'

'Jouez-vous aux échecs ? Non, je n’y joue pas.'


'She thought about it.'

'Elle y a réfléchi.'

In addition, ‘y’ can also be used as a shorthand for 'there', as in the following examples:

'We're going there'.

'On y va'

'I've never been there.'

'Je n’y suis jamais allé(e)'

Additional Rules

The following apply to both ‘en’ and ‘y’.

While ‘en’ and ‘y’ almost always precede the verb, the one exception is when you're using the imperative. When you want to give an order, you affix the pronoun onto the end of the verb with a hyphen, as in the following examples:

'Let's go there'

'Allons-y'

'Let's think about it'

'Réfléchissons-y'

'Take one (of them)'

'Prenez-en un'

When using the ‘tu’ form of the imperative with 'en' or 'y', you do not drop the ‘s’, as you usually would. For example:

'Go there'

'Vas-y'

Another exception is when another object pronoun is used. ‘En’ and ‘y’ must always come after direct or indirect object pronouns. For example:

'Give them some (of it)'

‘Donnez-leur-en’

'She spoke to me about it'

‘elle m’en a parlé’


For more examples of when to use 'en' and 'y', visit lesson 26 of the Complete French course.

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