Idiomatic French conversation is very challenging. I’m on record as saying that spoken French is very simple. The grammar is pretty straightforward. And you can get by with a small number of words. But simple does not mean easy. If you want to have a French conversation the way native speakers do, you really have to concentrate on how those fundamental elements are used in many different ways.
In this post I want to illustrate how a simple two-word idiomatic French expression can be used with great effectiveness even at relatively beginner levels of French. This will do wonders for your self-esteem and confidence. Indeed, you will even convince many native speakers that you speak French more fluently than you really do.
We will be looking at a use of the verb aller ‘to go’, one of the top ten verbs in the French language. More specifically, we will focus on what is called the present imperative mood that is used to give orders, commands or instructions. Conjugation tables give the form as:
va (go, informal singular)
allez (go, formal or plural)
allons (let’s go).
We now add the pronoun y “there” to the above forms and we have:
vas-y, allez-y, allons-y
Notice how an s have been added to va to form vas-y because of the liaison rule that introduces a z sound between vas and y. So, all of the above forms would be pronounced as vas-z-y, allez-z-y and allons-z-y.
The pronunciation of these words is very straightforward and should not cause any difficulty.
These combinations of aller and y can be used in two ways. When used where the pronoun refers to a place that has been mentioned earlier, allez-y can mean “go there”, as in the following example.
New York est une ville formidable, allez-y et vous me donnerez des nouvelles.
New York is a fantastic city, visit it and let me know what you think.
In this example, the y refers to New York.
However, the more common use is in the form of an idiom where the combination of aller and y takes on a special meaning that has nothing to do with a specific place or location. For example, allez-y will mean something like “go for it”, “go ahead”, “be my guest”, “please” or “start.”
Let’s look at some examples.
Use of “allez-y” in conversations
This is the most common form and the one you should concentrate on. Here are some typical situations:
1. The server in a restaurant is about to take your order. The conversation goes like this:
–Avez-vous fait votre choix ? (Have you decided?)
–Oui, je crois bien. Tout le monde est prêt à commander. (Yes, I think so. Everybody is ready to order.)
–Très bien, allez-y, je vous écoute. Est-ce que je peux commencer par vous, madame ? (Fine, go ahead. I’m listening. Can I start with you, madam?)
2. In a classroom, the teacher asks if somebody has the answer to a question. Here is the dialog.
–Qui a la réponse ? (Who has the answer?)
–Moi, je l’ai. (I do.)
–D’accord, allez-y. (OK. Go ahead.)
3. Your nose is running, and you see a box of tissues. Reaching over to take one, you ask the owner:
–Est-ce que je peux ? (May I?)
–Mais bien sûr, allez-y! (Of course, be my guest.)
4. You open a door for someone. Here is something you would say:
–Allez-y, allez-y. Après vous. (Please, after you.)
–Merci. (Thank you.)
This, by the way, is an excellent way to practice this form. You can go around opening doors for people and practice saying allez-y.
5. You are waiting in line at the bank and you want to see a specific employee, so you are willing to let other people go ahead of you. You could say something like this:
–Allez-y, allez-y, monsieur / madame, j’attends un autre caissier / une autre caissière. (Go ahead, go ahead, sir / madam, I’m waiting for the other teller.)
Notice how here, as well as in the previous example, the allez-y is repeated. This is typical of spoken language.
6. Someone at the wheel of a car is having some difficulty parking. You want to help with directions. You could say something like this:
–Allez-y doucement, doucement. Encore un peu, allez-y. Maintenant, marche arrière, allez-y, allez-y. C’est bon. Ça y est. (Take it easy, slowly. A bit more, go ahead. Now back up, go ahead. That’s fine. You OK.)
7. You’re on the telephone and are to take a message. Here is a typical dialog:
– Est-ce que je peux laisser un message ? (Can I leave a message?)
– Mais bien sûr. (Of course.)
– Vous avez de quoi écrire ? (Do you have something to write with?)
– Tout à fait. Allez-y. (Yes, I do. Go ahead.)
As you can see from all these examples, this common theme of “giving instruction or commands” can be used in many contexts. The neat thing about this idiom is that it is simple yet so effective. If you are in a French-speaking environment, you should have no difficulty using it at least ten times a day. You don’t have to make a long sentence. Just throw out a well pronounced allez-y and all the listeners will be convinced that you are a speaker of idiomatic French.
Using “vas-y” in conversations
Vas-y is used just like allez-y except in more casual situations, especially with close friends or young children. This form goes with the subject pronoun tu. English-speakers should pay close attention to the distinction between vas-y and allez-y. These are easily confused. When in doubt, use allez-y Here are a couple of examples of the use of vas-y:
1. You are at a sports competition and your sister is playing. You would encourage her with:
–Vas-y, vas-y, cours, cours. (Go, go, run, run.)
In Québécois French, you would hear something like:
–Vas-y, vas-y, ma grande, t’es capable. (Go for it girl, you can do it.)
2. A child is about to undergo a medical operation. The parents are encouraging her with:
–Ça ne fera pas mal. Tu vas voir, ça va bien aller. Vas-y, ma cocotte, laisse-toi aller. On va t’attendre. (It won’t hurt. You will see, it’s going to be fine. Take it easy, sweetie, just relax. We’ll be waiting for you.)
Using “allons-y” in conversation
The form allons-y means basically “let’s go for it” Here are some examples :
1. A sports team is preparing to go out on to the playing field. The coach would say something like:
–Tout le monde est prêt? Alors, allons-y. (Everybody ready? Let’s go for it.)
2. A meeting is about to begin. Some people have not arrived yet. Here is something one could hear.
–Il manque quelques personnes, mais on ne peut plus attendre. Commençons, allons-y. (A few people are not here yet, but we can’t wait any longer. Let’s begin, let’s start.)
Using “on y va” in conversation
This is simply a variant of allons-y. Remember that in the spoken language, the versatile third person pronoun ON is much more common than NOUS. For example, you will hear On va partir much more often than Nous allons partir.
Thus, instead of allons-y, you will often hear on y va. Here are two examples:
1. You are leaving for the airport, and the taxi is waiting. Here is something you might say:
–Dépêchez-vous. Sinon on va manquer l’avion. Le taxi est déjà là. On y va ! (Hurry up! Otherwise, we’re going to miss the plane. The taxi is already here. Let’s go!)
2. A selection committee is about to interview a candidate for a position. Somebody says:
–Le candidat est à l’accueil depuis 15 minutes. Il faut pas le faire attendre trop. Tout est prêt. Bref, on y va. (The candidate has been waiting at the reception for 15 minutes. We shouldn’t keep him waiting too long. Everything is ready. Come on, let’s start.)
In all these examples, the combination of aller and y is used in a kind of set phrase that does not derive clearly from the individual words. This is the exactly how an idiom works. Allez-y and the different variants are perfect examples of how a little piece of idiomatic French can take you a long way and make you look good in French conversations.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.