Y: An Adverbial Pronoun That Replaces Prepositional Phrases

Couple leaving apartment
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The French adverbial pronoun y is so tiny that you might think its role in a sentence is not very important, but, in fact, quite the opposite is true. This letter is extremely important in French. Y refers to a previously mentioned or implied place; it is normally translated as "there" in English. 

Using "Y" in French

In French, the letter y usually replaces a prepositional phrase beginning with something like à, chez, or dans (at, in, or in), as demonstrated in these examples, where the English sentence or sentences are followed by the French translation:

  •  Are you going to the bank today? No, I'm going (there) tomorrow. > Tu vas à la banque aujourd'hui ? Non, j'y vais demain.
  • We're going to the store. Do you want to go (there)? > Nous allons au magasin. Tu veux y aller?
  • He was at Jean's house. He was there. > Il était chez Jean. Il y était.

Note that "there" can often be omitted in English, but y can never be omitted in French. Je vais (I'm going) is not a complete sentence in French; if you don't follow the verb with a place, you have to say J'y vais.

Use "Y" to Replace a Noun

Y can also replace à + a noun that is not a person, such as with verbs that need à. Note that in French, you must include either à + something or its replacement y, even though the equivalent may be optional in English. You cannot replace the noun with an object pronoun, as exhibited in the following examples:

  • I'm responding to a letter. I'm responding (to it). > Je réponds à une lettre. J'y réponds.
  • He's thinking about our trip. He's thinking about it.Il pense à notre voyage. Il y pense.
  • You have to obey the law. You have to obey it. > Tu dois obéir à la loi. Tu dois y obéir.
  • Yes, I attended the meeting. Yes, I attended (it). > Oui, j'ai assisté à la réunion. Oui, j'y ai assisté.
  • I'm going to think about your proposal. I'm going to think about it. >  Je vais réfléchir à votre proposition. Je vais y réfléchir.

In most cases, à + person may only be replaced by an indirect object. However, in the case of verbs that don't allow preceding indirect object pronouns, you can use y, as in this example:

  • Pay attention to him. > Fais attention à lui, Fais-y attention.

"Y" Do's and Don'ts

Note that y usually cannot replace à + verb, as in these examples, which show the correct way to create this construction:

  • I hesitate to tell the truth. I hesitate to tell it. > J'hésite à dire la vérité. J'hésite à la dire.
  • I continue to read Balzac. I continue to read him. > Je continue à lire Balzac. Je continue à le lire.

Y is also found in the expressions il y a, on y va, and allons-y, which translate into English as, "there is," "let's go," and "let's go," respectively.