I hate y and en. These little words have caused so much confusion for me in French. The basic rules are:
1) y replaces a prepositional phrase (except those beginning with de). It translates as “there” or “it” and sometimes it is not translated into English.
On va à Boston demain. We’re going to Boston tomorrow.
On y va demain. We’re going there tomorrow.
Elle ne joue pas au foot ? She doesn’t play soccer?
Si, elle y joue ! Yes, she does!
2) en replaces de or any contraction of it as well as the noun that follows a number. It translates as “of/about it” or “of/about them” and sometimes it is not translated into English.
Il veut du lait. He wants some milk.
Il n’en veut pas. He doesn’t want any.
J’ai deux chiens. I have two dogs.
J’en ai deux. I have two (of them).
Neither one can replace a person. For example, Elle pense à lui cannot become Elle y pense. And both y and en are placed before the conjugated verb, like other pronouns, or after the imperative. This means you have to think quickly and figure out if you need to replace the prepositional phrase before you even say the verb. Sometimes word order in French is worse than in German…
But those are the overly simple examples that I always learned from grammar books. It’s much more complicated than that. One problem is with verbs followed by à or de before nouns. Either I forget that they require a preposition and so I don’t use y or en at all when I should. Or I throw in the y or en, but still use the prepositional phrase at the end. ::sigh:: I just can’t win.
Il n’a pas besoin de l’ordinateur. He doesn’t need the computer.
Il n’en a pas besoin. He doesn’t need it.
Ils ont renoncé au tabac. They gave up tobacco.
Ils y ont renoncé. They gave it up.
Another problem is verbs that automatically use en or y. Sometimes I have no idea what prepositional phrase they’re replacing; you’re just always supposed to use the verb this way. And if you do forget the y or en, sometimes the verb changes its meaning and you’ll sound really stupid. (Notice that there are a lot of reflexive verbs in this category, another part of French grammar that drives me crazy. But I’ll save that for another day…)
s’y faire – to get used to
s’y prendre – to go about doing something
y arriver – to manage / to be able to do something
en vouloir (à quelqu’un) – to be mad / to hold a grudge (at/against someone)
en baver – to have a hard time doing something [Notice that baver means to drool!]
en venir – to get at / imply something
s’en sortir / s’en tirer – to manage in life / to make it (i.e. recover, survive)
s’en faire – to worry
s’en aller – to go away
And let’s not get s’y faire or s’en faire confused with se faire, which when followed by an infinitive means “to get oneself + past participle” : Tu vas te faire tuer. You’re going to get yourself killed.
And I get even more confused with verbs that require de, but also already have en before them! [David tells me this is not actually grammatically correct French, but this is the way that French people speak.]
en avoir marre de quelque chose – to be fed up with something
s’en fiche / s’en foutre de quelque chose – to not care about something
And the kicker? Verbs like these, which sometimes have opposite meanings!
s’en douter vs. douter: Je m’en doute means I imagine so; whereas j’en doute means I doubt it.
There are other examples of how one little sound changes the entire meaning in French. Yet another reason why I think French was invented as a cruel joke on foreigners trying to learn it.
Tu en veux ? vs. Tu m’en veux ?
Do you want some? vs. Are you mad at me?
And the cruelest one of all, which includes a vowel sound that doesn’t exist in English:
dessus vs. dessous
above vs. below
Seriously. That’s just mean.
P.S. If you didn’t get the title, just pronounce y and en together as one word… and you will be making the noise that a donkey makes in French (hihan instead of heehaw).