Y en. (Not a French donkey.)

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.

French V Tutorial 90. Verbs followed by by à or de before infinitives or nouns

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).

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  • Linda

    Sigh. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to carry on a good conversation with a French person. I’m still at the beginner stage and, once, after a party I realized I had spent the evening speaking mostly in the past tense. Why, I don’t know.

  • Linda

    Sigh. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to carry on a good conversation with a French person. I’m still at the beginner stage and, once, after a party I realized I had spent the evening speaking mostly in the past tense. Why, I don’t know.

  • The Late Bloomer

    A very playful and intriguing post! And if you ask me, Jennie, it sounds like you grasp the “y” and “en” much better than you give yourself credit for! Using them in conversation and such, if you’re not already doing so, will just come in time… Seriously — I know it’s a pain to hear that, but I honestly believe that these kinds of habits come with usage, over and over again. And like you said, the funniest part is that the French actually make mistakes with these all the time themselves!

  • The Late Bloomer

    A very playful and intriguing post! And if you ask me, Jennie, it sounds like you grasp the “y” and “en” much better than you give yourself credit for! Using them in conversation and such, if you’re not already doing so, will just come in time… Seriously — I know it’s a pain to hear that, but I honestly believe that these kinds of habits come with usage, over and over again. And like you said, the funniest part is that the French actually make mistakes with these all the time themselves!

  • Anne in Oxfordshire

    Well I have no chance then, I’m sure at one point it will all click into place..as late bloomer says with more usage it will all come in time.

  • Anne in Oxfordshire

    Well I have no chance then, I’m sure at one point it will all click into place..as late bloomer says with more usage it will all come in time.

  • Justin

    Thanks Jennie, you have a way of making things clearer. I have been fighting y and en for two weeks now. Worst part was I totally got it the first couple of days, but now am lost again. I am sure it will come back, so thanks for the further clarification.

  • Justin

    Thanks Jennie, you have a way of making things clearer. I have been fighting y and en for two weeks now. Worst part was I totally got it the first couple of days, but now am lost again. I am sure it will come back, so thanks for the further clarification.

  • Milie

    I’m sure that after a while you’ll stop thinking about it ;-) I sometimes find it hard to explain all these rules to my sister in law who learns french (and who is Australian). Anyway, have a great w-e!Hihan from Sydney!

  • Milie

    I’m sure that after a while you’ll stop thinking about it ;-)
    I sometimes find it hard to explain all these rules to my sister in law who learns french (and who is Australian). Anyway, have a great w-e!
    Hihan from Sydney!

  • Karen

    I am with you on the “dessus” vs. “dessous”. My first year six months here I just pronounced them the same and hoped for the best. And let me tell you, that really worked. ;)

  • Karen

    I am with you on the “dessus” vs. “dessous”. My first year six months here I just pronounced them the same and hoped for the best. And let me tell you, that really worked. ;)

  • Andromeda

    I just had a long discussion with my boyfriend about “J’en doute” v. “Je m’en doute” and how ridiculous it is and I refuse to say it. Also “t’inquiète” to tell someone NOT to worry . . . If they all stopped being so lazy and added “pas” where they should, things would be so much simpler!

  • Andromeda

    I just had a long discussion with my boyfriend about “J’en doute” v. “Je m’en doute” and how ridiculous it is and I refuse to say it. Also “t’inquiète” to tell someone NOT to worry . . . If they all stopped being so lazy and added “pas” where they should, things would be so much simpler!

  • MISS YURI

    cool post, this is something that used to give me a lot of trouble too! one little thing, you wrote “ils ont y renoncé” but i think it is “ils y ont renoncé” cause i always say “je n’y ai pas pensé”

  • MISS YURI

    cool post, this is something that used to give me a lot of trouble too! one little thing, you wrote “ils ont y renoncé” but i think it is “ils y ont renoncé” cause i always say “je n’y ai pas pensé”

  • http://twitter.com/3ioni Desiree T
  • http://twitter.com/3ioni Desiree T
  • Corrado

    the.. Italian is better :o)

    very good post.

    Brava!

  • Corrado

    the.. Italian is better :o)

    very good post.

    Brava!

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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