The French Pronoun Y

Overview

The adverbial pronoun y can replace a place or the object of the preposition àY is most commonly equivalent to "there," but may also be translated by a preposition plus "it."

Y replaces or refers back to an adverb phrase of place or of location. In its simplest form, it means just there (in the meaning of in that place) It can also mean in something, on something, under something, beside something, etc.

Y  replaces an adverb phrase of direction or of movement towards a designated place. It often replaces or refers back to the French preposition à
It can therefore mean to a place, towards a place, towards a goal, etc. - both litterally and figuratively.

Y  is very commonly found in the expression il y a (and its variations in other tenses, such as il y avait). Here it has no real meaning, but corresponds to the English There is or there are. Note that unlike there is/ there are, Il y a is only used in the singular

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Yes, it’s true… the letter “y” is actually a word in French! It’s pronounced “E,” and it’s an adverbial pronoun. It most often represents/replaces a place and can be translated into English as the word “there.” This can be a literal place that someone can go to (like a city or building) or a place that you’re making reference to (in front of something or on another object). Like the other pronouns we’ve been learning, it will be placed before the conjugated verb in the sentence. That means in the passé composé, it will precede the auxiliary verb. In a tense like the futur proche where there are two verbs (one conjugated and one infinitive), it will be placed between the two or precede the infinitive.

Look for one of the following French prepositions in your sentences to help you identify a place that can be replaced with the pronoun, y:

Preposition → Example

*à        →        à la fromagerie

en        →        en France

chez     →        chez moi

dans     →        dans la pâtisserie

devant →       devant la scène

derrière →       derrière le mur

sous     →        sous l’escalier

sur       →        sur l’affiche

*Remember that à can be added to definite articles (le/la/les) and take on different forms. So, remember that this preposition can look like au, à la, à l’ or aux in a sentence.

Examples:

J’habite à Charleston. → J’y habite.

Nous restons chez vous. → Nous y restons.

Élise était devant la porte quand je l’ai fermé. → Élise y était quand je l’ai fermé.

Êtes-vous allés au concert ? → Y êtes-vous allés?

An additional case:

An additional scenario where you can use y as a pronoun is to replace a direct object following the verbs that are accompanied by the preposition à. Think back to the previous module where you learned how to use indirect object pronouns. We only discussed using the indirect object pronouns with people. That’s because you can use y to replace ideas that are expressed in this format.

Look at these two specific examples:

  • Je pense à Alice quand je suis triste. → Je pense à elle quand je suis triste.
  • Je pense à ma religion quand je suis triste. → J’y pense quand je suis triste.

In these examples, the pronoun y is replacing “à la religion” because it’s more of an abstract concept/idea rather than a specific person.

The following list shows common verbs where you could use the pronoun y to replace the object that follow a verb with the preposition à:

croire à

penser à

faire attention à

ver à

songer à

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Y replaces or refers back to an adverb phrase of place or of location. In its simplest form, it means just there (in the meaning of in that place) It can also mean in something, on something, under something, beside something, etc.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
Reading:
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.