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Quelle heure est-il ? Oh ! Il est 8 heures : je m'en vais.

It means “What time is it? Oh! It is eight o'clock: I'm leaving.”

But how to understand it, from grammar point of view?

  • Why is there an en? en is normally a preposition, doesn't it need to connect to some noun?
  • Why is there an m'? m' means "me", but how could somebody aller (vais) have himself as the object?
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"I go myself some" sounds very natural to me. I'm kidding of course. I heard "je m'en vais" for the first time today and actually laughed out loud. Even after reading the answers, I still don't understand it fully. I'll just take the meaning on faith ("I'm going away"). –  Mike M. Lin May 18 '12 at 7:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

S'en aller is, to be specific, a relic. It belongs to the same family of verbs as s'envoler, s'enfuir, emporter, enlever, and a few others. Like these verbs, s'en aller (as well as s'en revenir, s'en retourner, s'en venir) has some features of fusion (notably that, as you both note, en is meaningless and can in fact be accompanied of a de-preceded object), but not that many. A good intermediate example is s'ensuivre, whose compound form, against all rules of French conjugations, is frequently built as s'en est suivi (these verbs are discussed by Grevisse in his §681).

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@circeus thanks, this helps! now i remember another example i read before : Abeille. Un insecte s'est posé sur une fleur. Son corps, de forme allongée, est rayé de jaune et de brun. C'est une abeille. Elle s'envole pour rejoindre les autres abeilles de la ruche. -- at the beginning i thought "Elle s'envole ..." is a bit weird, now i see that reflexive is something special in french, comparing to english... –  athos Apr 17 '12 at 1:57
@Stéphane Gimenez It's not so much a locution (like, say "donner du fil à retordre") as an actual grammatical structure that shares these peculiarities with a set of other verbs, and one that could well have fused to remove the issue entirely (as in "s'enfuir"). Characterising it as a mere locution obscures the broader pattern. Sorry I'm thinking as a linguist more than a grammarian here >_>;; –  Circeus Apr 17 '12 at 3:08
@athos Indeed there are a number of verbs (known as "pronominal verbs") that can only or almost only be used in the reflexive, s'en aller and s'envoler are two, as are, say, s'esclaffer ("to burst with laughter") or se repentir ("to repent"). –  Circeus Apr 17 '12 at 3:17
@Circeus, what does the broader pattern adds (except of a list of a few other verbal forms that are similar)? How does it explain anything? –  Stéphane Gimenez Apr 17 '12 at 12:34
In italian we have the opposite: "ne". Je m'en vais = Me ne vado. :D –  Alenanno Apr 18 '12 at 9:53

First, en is not only a preposition like in:

Il parle en mangeant.
Il arrive en France.

it is also a personal pronoun. In the following example, it refers to an indefinite amount of something:

Du chocolat, j'en mange beaucoup.

Or it can be an adverbial pronoun. For example to refer to a place:

L'aéroport ? Justement, j'en viens.

But it's also a word that is used in many locutions. In your sentence, it's part of s'en aller which is a verbal locution. The meaning of locutions cannot be inferred from the meaning of isolated words, and sometimes they break standard grammatical rules: in this case the en is dangling, it refers to nothing specific. Also, the “s' ” is a reflexive pronoun and it must be inflected in accordance with the subject:

Je m'en vais.
Tu t'en vas.
Il s'en va.
Nous nous en allons.

The fact that the reflexive pronoun appears is specific to this locution and cannot be understood. As you mentioned, the verb aller can't usually be used reflexively: *s'aller is not French. (Saler does exist, but it's something different ;-))

As for the meaning, s'en aller often means to go away… or to die in some specific cases (“Il s'en est allé.”).

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thanks, now i understand it! –  athos Apr 17 '12 at 1:54

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