I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again: the key to learning French quickly and well is to master a small number of essential elements. One of these elements is the pronoun “y.” Along with “en”, “on” and “ça”, “y” makes up the four awesome French pronouns that you have to know inside out.
The reason these pronouns are so powerful and useful is that they are versatile. Remember that pronouns replace nouns; they refer to something else called the antecedent. This antecedent can often be clearly identified. Sometimes it can be quite vague or not exist at all. Hence pronouns can be used in many different ways.
In part 1 of this post, I’ll look at the common straightforward uses of “y.” In part 2, I’ll introduce some idiomatic uses that are quite sophisticated and less common.
A. Basic uses: referring to a physical or imaginary place
“Y” can often be translated as “there” when referring to a location or a place, as in:
Je vais au bureau; j’y serai dans dix minutes. (I’m going to the office; I’ll be there in ten minutes.)
On mange à l’école; on y mange tous les midis. (We eat in school; we eat there at noon everyday.)
The “y” refers to “au bureau” and “à l’école” of course. The rule here is that “y” can be used in place of a reference to a place, especially when one uses the prepositions meaning “to”, “at” or “in.” Here are some examples:
Ils sont déjà au restaurant. Viens, on y va.
Mon frère va à l’hôpital. J’y vais avec lui.
Elle vit aux États-Unis. Nous y allons l’année prochaine.
C’est un bon restaurant; j’y vais souvent.
Votre question est intéressante: j’y reviendrai dans un instant.
Venez y retrouver vos vieux amis, (Come meet your friends there.)
Au plaisir de vous y rencontrer.(I’m looking forward to meeting you there.)
As you can see, “y” is typically used with verbs of movement or location in space like “aller, venir, être, arriver, venir, rester, retourner.”
Generally speaking, “y” can be used with verbs that take the preposition à, au, à la. Typical verbs are: partir à, penser à, réfléchir à, rêver à, assister à, s’attendre à. Here are some examples with “y”:
Pensez-y et donnez-moi votre réponse.
Je ne vois pas ma soeur beaucoup, mais j’y pense souvent
Je vais y réfléchir et je vous rappelerai.
On a reçu sa lettre. Il faut y répondre vite.
C’est une surprise, on s’y attendait pas.
Je n’aime pas l’hiver mais je m’y habitué.
Pitfall 1: “y “replacing “il”
Very often, writers of colloquial French will use “y” to represent the subject pronoun “il” without the “l” sound. Examples would be:
Y vient pas avec nous. (He’s not coming with us.)
Y a pas dit pas un mot. (He didn’t say a word.)
This “y” has nothing to do with the subject of this blog post.
Pitfall 2: “y” referring to persons
In colloquial French, especially in Quebec, “y” is very often used to represent “lui’ (to him / her) and sometimes à eux, à elles (to them).
J’y parle plus. (I no longer speak to him.)
On y a donné sa part. (We gave him/her his/her share.)
This usage is in a sense related to what is under discussion here but, keep in mind that this use of “y” is considered non-standard. Note the following distinction:
J’ai reçu un courriel et j’y ai répondu tout de suite. (I received an e-mail and I answered it right away.)
Il m’a demandé ma réponse et je lui ai répondu non. (He asked me my answer and I replied no to him.)
However – and this is the really tricky part – certain verbs like penser à, se fier à, s’intéresser à, s’attacher à, songer à can use “y” to refer to persons. Here are some exemples:
Il est très honnète; on peut s’y fier. (He is very honest; he can be trusted.)
Elle s’appelle Sarah et je m’y suis vite attaché. (Her name is Sarah and I quickly became attached to her.)
B. Basic uses: Y as used in “il y a”
Here are two idiomatic uses of “y” that you are probably familiar with. The “y” has no distinct meaning.
1. “Il y a” can mean “(time) ago” as in the following examples.
Je l’ai vu il y a dix minutes. (I saw him ten minutes ago.)
L’avion est parti il y a une heure. (The plane has departed an hour ago.)
Il est mort il y aura bientôt un an. (It will soon be a year since he died.)
By far the most common form is “il y a” and it is generally used at the end of the sentence. But you will here things like:
Il y a trois ans qu’on n’a pas de ses nouvelles. (It’s been three years that we have not heard from him.)
2. “Il y a” can meaning “there is / there are”
This is probably the most common idiomatic use of a construction with “y.” Here are some examples:
Il y a du café et de l’eau à boire. (There’s coffee and water to drink.)
Il y a plusieurs raisons à cela. (There are various reasons for this.)
Il n’y a rien à faire. (There’s nothing to be done.)
Il y avait beaucoup de gens au spectacle. (There were many people at the show.)
Il y a eu peu de plaintes. (There were few complaints.)
Il n’y aura pas d’eau demain. (There won’t be any water tomorrow.)
Be aware that the “il” in “il y a” is sometimes dropped in casual spoken French and even in written French, especially in advertising. So don’t be surprised if you hear or see something like:
Y a du nouveau cet hiver ! (There’s something new this hiver.)
All the above uses are basically the most common uses of the “y” pronoun and should be quite familiar to most readers. In part 2, things will get more complicated when we look at some of the sophisticated uses of “y” where the exact meaning of the pronoun becomes quite unclear.