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In a French grammar I read that y can only replace nouns that are not proper nouns.

Thus, if I want to say Je pense à ce problème, I can say J'y pense.

But if I want to say Je pense à Paul, apparently I cannot say J'y pense.

Is this accurate?

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I don’t have time to write a full-fledged answer, so in two words, no details: « J’y pense » is indeed inaccurate for people. You should say « Je pense à lui ». –  Édouard Jul 21 '13 at 8:38
    
I beg to differ: it can, but it sounds archaïc or very informal. –  Evpok Sep 7 '13 at 18:14

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I don't think there is an issue with proper nouns per se but with people (Je vais en Belgique, J'y vais has no issue at all for me, while Je pense à mon cousin, j'y pense has the same feeling as with Paul).

According to Grevisse, y can refer to people when used as indirect object because in some cases lui and similar pronouns are not an option; or, in a more literary language, it can be used for other kinds of complements. But all the given examples feel either literary or popular to me (especially when nothing prevents the use of lui, or similar).

So I wonder if the language isn't losing the possibility to refer to a person with y and Grevisse described an intermediate state of an evolution which isn't stabilized yet (Grevisse notes that it occurred far more often in the past).

BTW The same holds for en.

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Un francophone's answer is already good. Let's just mention the existence of this usage (y for personal pronoun) in popular speak, which would be flagged as incorrect in formal or professional context but still exists.

There are lots of examples in Renaud or Coluche texts:

  • Renaud, Tu vas au bal, where the form is repeated many times in the lyrics.
  • Coluche, J'y ai dit viens, for the title and chorus.
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The y (as it is often transcribed) in these cases has nothing to do with the y being asked for, though. It's another pronunciation of the pronouns il(s) or lui. "Y" is often used to transcribe this usage because it happens to be an existing word that does not look nearly as visually jarring as spelling it the "natural" way (i or 'i). –  Circeus Sep 11 '13 at 15:19
    
I would agree with you, I was about to make a comment in this sense or even delete the answer altogether. But this is not the case for my second example, where y replaces.... a feminine interlocutor. y for elle ? –  Romain VALERI Sep 12 '13 at 1:07
    
"y replaces.... a feminine interlocutor. y for elle?" No. You're skipping an important middle step that I mention in my comment: y for lui. That lui further refers to a elle is irrelevant. I don't know about Europe, but the proper feminine equivalent in Canadian slangy French is a e.g. "La Reine", by the Cowboys Fringants: On avait jamais su de quel pays qu'a venait. –  Circeus Sep 12 '13 at 22:08

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