The Difference Between Y vs En in French

French pronouns can be weird, you know? The French pronouns “Y” and “En” almost mean the same thing — but you can’t actually use them synonymously!

So, what’s the difference between y and en in French? How do they work? How do you know which one to use? Why do we say both “Je m’en vais” and “J’y vais” ?

Let’s find out, in today’s lesson!

C’est parti !

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1. “Y” or “En” : The basics

The French words y and en are pronouns.
We use them to replace groups of words, for short.

Y is pronounced [“ee”]. It’s used to replace: à + [something] (= roughly “towards something / about something / in something”)

En is pronounced [/ɑ̃/]. It’s a French nasal vowel that we use in words like “sans” (= without) or “enfants” (= children). Think of it as a nasal “aww.” This pronoun replaces: de + [noun] (= roughly “of something / from somewhere”)

That’s the main difference between y and en in French, but in reality it’s more complicated than that. Let’s see how these pronouns really work, with examples.

2. “Y” or “En” : examples with Y

You can use “y” to answer a question:

Marie va à l’école bientôt ? (= Is Marie going to school soon?)
Oui, elle y va demain. (= Yes, she’s going there tomorrow.)
Here, y refers to “à l’école” (= to school.) Just like en, it always comes just before the verb.

Here’s another example:

Elle a pensé à acheter ses livres ? (= Did she think about buying her books?) → Oui, elle y a pensé.

(Here, y was used to replace “à acheter ses livres” = to buy her books)

As you can see, y most often replaces groups like:

  • à + [place] à l’école
  • à + [action / verb in the infinitive] à acheter ses livres

We don’t use it for people, though! We have personal pronouns for this.

For example:
Je pense à Marie. (= I’m thinking about Marie)
Je pense à elle. (= I’m thinking about her.)

Another thing to note: we also use y as a pronoun for chez + [quelqu’un] (= at someone’s place).

Tu vas chez Antoine ? (= Are you going to Antoine’s place?)
Oui, j’y vais. (= Yes, I’m going there.)

French grammar is full of exceptions within exceptions. We also use à to describe transportation : à pied (= walking), à vélo (= cycling)…
And hours of the day, too: à 5 heures (= at 5, etc.)
But we never use y (or any pronoun) to shorten these examples.

3. “Y” or “En” : “J’y vais” / “Je m’en vais”

We never really use “je vais” (= I go / I’m going) by itself.

Sure, you can say Je vais manger (= I’m going to eat) and other things. But if you want to say “I’m going / I’m leaving now”, you can use two common expressions.

The first one is:
J’y vais! (= I’m going/leaving.)

→ “Allez, j’y vais. Salut !”= OK, I’m going. See ya!

Here, “y” doesn’t really stand for anything. It’s only implied that it’s ailleurs (= “somewhere else.”)

The second expression, funnily enough, uses en:
Je m’en vais ! (= I’m going, I’m leaving)

It’s actually the whole verb s’en aller, which I covered in another lesson. Here, “en” doesn’t stand for anything either — it’s another fixed expression / verb.
We do not say “Je m’y vais” !

4. “Y” or “En” : Examples with “en”

En has several meanings and uses in French.

For example, we use it for the gerund (– ing) verb forms: en marchant (= walking / while walking), en parlant (= while talking)…

Today, though, we’ll focus on its use as a pronoun.

As a pronoun, en replaces a group of words that looks like: de [quelque chose / quelque part] (= “of somewhere / from somewhere / about something / some of it…)

De is a simple-looking preposition, but it’s used in so many cases that there’s no unique translation to it. (How would you explain a word like “to” in English, for example?)

But for example, we’d say:
Je mange de la confiture tous les matins. (= I eat some jam every morning)

And with “en,” it could make:
J’aime la confiture. J’en mange tous les matins. (= I like jam. I eat some every morning)

Je reviens de la boulangerie. (= I come back from the bakery.)
Tu as vu la boulangerie ? Oui, j’en reviens. (= Have you seen the bakery? Yes, I just came back from the bakery.)

Or, with a verb in the infinitive:
Tu as envie de dormir ? (= Would you like to sleep?)
Oui, j’en ai envie. (= Yes, I’d like to.)

Sometimes, “de” changes, and “grabs” what comes after it.

De + vowel → d’ + vowel
Ex: On parle de [amour] On parle d’amour. (= We talk about love)

De + le → du
Ex: On parle de [le vin sur la table]. → On parle du vin sur la table. (= …about the wine on the table)

De + les → des
Ex: On parle de [les enfants]. → On parle des enfants. (= …about the children)

5. “Y” or “En” : Recap & Quiz

Only practice can really teach you whether a complement needs to start with à or with de after a given verb.

You can start by learning the most common verbs that call for à or de. That’s what you’ll find in the examples throughout this lesson.

But for now, let’s have a quiz!

Quick recap:
y = “à” (or “chez”) + [something]
en = “de” + [something]

Now, how would you replace the underlined groups with the correct pronoun, to make a correct sentence?

  1. Je ne comprends rien à ce film. (= I don’t understand a thing about this movie.)
  2. Il va chez le coiffeur. (= He’s going to the hairdresser.)
  3. Tu veux de la choucroute ? (= Do you want some sauerkraut?)
  4. Ils parlent à leur mère. (= They’re talking to their mother.)
  5. Vous revenez de chez Antoine ? (= Are you coming back from Antoine’s place?)
  6. On parle de nos vacances depuis deux ans. (= We’ve been talking about our holidays for two years now.)

Try it yourself!

Below this line, you’ll find the written answers.

Here they are:

  1. Je n’y comprends rien.
  2. Il y va.
  3. Tu en veux ?
  4. Ils lui parlent. (Trick question: we don’t use “y” for people!)
  5. Vous en revenez ?
  6. On en parle depuis deux ans.

How did you do? How many of the answers did you get right?
Practice makes perfect. And learning more can help you practice better.

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À tout de suite.
I’ll see you on the other side!

And now:

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Join the conversation!

  • Thanks. This explains why the expressions are “allons nous en” (let’s go) and “va t’en” or “allez vous en” (go away), which I never understood before.

    • Hi Norton!

      Yes, they’re all “S’en aller” in the imperative 🙂

      Have a great day,

      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française

    • Bonjour Sally!

      That’s a great question.
      But there’s no good answer.
      I’d say it’s because in “Ils lui parlent”, “elle” is involved in the action. In “Je pense à elle, ” “elle” can be unaware of that.

      But really, it’s more that “penser” is an exception. It’s the only verb I can think of where we can say “Je [verb] à Marie” that becomes “Je [verb] à elle” instead of “Je lui [verb].”

      Have a great day,

      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française.

  • Salut Géraldine!
    As good an explanation of when to use Y and EN that I have yet heard!!
    Bravo et merci !!
    Bisous

    • Thank you Brian!

      These explanations are still the basic idea about the pronouns. In French, you can always find more exceptions by digging deeper in a topic, so don’t be surprised if you find out some subtlely we couldn’t talk about in one lesson. I hope we gave you at least some understanding of these pronouns, so you can start making (and understanding) more French sentences with confidence. The rest will come with practice!

      Have a great day,
      – Arthur, writer for Comme une Française

  • You mentioned that “Je n’y comprends rien” is a common expression. Does it get shortened to “J’y comprends rien”? I guess I’m asking whether the usual letter and wording eating happen with the Y/en construction.

    • Hi Keith!

      That’s exactly right. We didn’t want to take up space (or time) by diving into that in this lesson, but “J’y comprends rien” is indeed the most usual version of this sentence in everyday spoken French.

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