Background: I have had some 20 hours of crash course french and a hectic but interesting 5 months working in France. So I have a basic understanding of what a conversation is about and I can make myself reasonably well understood verbally. I have not had any training reading or writing, but "imagining" the words being said makes me understand at a basic level there as well.

Question: What I would like is for someone to direct me to material where I can reference the small idiomatic concatenated expressions and their numerous meanings in different settings. The most common ones like "Il-y-a" and "On-y-va" I grasp, but when I try to learn more (I try to read comics and books for children) I run into many of these, they seem to be more used colloquially and they are hard to puzzle and google translate cannot be understanding them any better than I, clearly.

So, my question is: Is there somewhere (on the web?) a list of meanings for them? "Va-t-en" is an example I just checked. It seems to mean "leave" in different ways from rude and imperative to instructive or just plainly - it would be nice to have some sort of table I can print when I am trying to read...

1 Answer 1


I shall try to sort out your question for you at a basic level so you can find basic patterns.

1) Y means there, basically, but also means **it or that****.

It is used to replace a noun with **any verb that "takes" à:

aller à l'école (go to school) becomes y aller (go there). This is because of the à after aller. You have to learn which verbs "take" à.

Another example: croire à quelque chose: to believe (in) something. When the something is not present, that becomes y: Je n'y crois pas. And in this case, it means: it. I don't believe it. Getting the picture?

2) "On y va" is Let's go [there]; We're going [there]; Let's do it (in some circumstances). Remember the children's song: Sur le pont d'Avignon? L'on y danse, l'on y danse? That's a good example. The bridge is where people danse, or we danse, for example.

In French, the on pronoun (third person singular) is one, BUT it is often used in stead of nous or ils or even Let's. On parle trop vite en France. They speak too fast in France. or: We speak too fast in France. Whether it's WE or THEY or implied PEOPLE, as in the song, will depend on your context generally speaking.

3) Now, about Va-t-en: Here's another pattern, we can point out. Please bear with me through the weeds. Some verbs do not take Y , they take DE. Sorry, you have to start to learn these as you go along.

And this one is also an idiom: to leave [a place] in French is s'en aller [to leave some place or to go away].

When the de [plus verb] is not present the EN essentially replaces it except with this idiom because for it, it must be present: s'en aller. The translation of EN can be SOME or IT but to have the meaning of leave or go away, the EN must be there. Je m'en vais d'ici maintenant: I'm leaving here now. I'm going away now [from here].

The imperative with the Tu is: Va-t-en !. Leave or Go Away! [imperative] With vous, it's Allez-vous-en. Leave or Go Away [imperative, plural]. Tu is singular you and implies you know the person. Vous is plural you and/or polite you. Now, all this you have to learn to conjugate: Je m'en vais Nous nous en allons Tu t'en va Vous vous en allez Il s'en va Ils s'en vont

The good news here is that French basically only has one present for practical purposes: Je m'en vais d'ici à 16h. can be: I leave here [everyday} at 4 o'clock] OR I'm leaving here at 4 [today]. This is important for English speakers to grasp. And don't try to use en train de because that's too advanced at this point.

Other verbs take de: décider de faire quelque chose, to decide to do something. When the something is not stated, you use EN for it. Vouloir de [some thing, non-countable nouns mostly: du café, du sucre (masc.), de l'eau (fem. but starts with a vowel), de la tarte (fem). Décider de. There are many others.

Getting these right is important since food is so central to French life. Voulez-vous de la tarte? [Would you like some pie?]

Ce matin, j'ai décide de faire le travail. Becomes: Ce matin, j'en ai décide. [This morning I decided to do it.]

In France, the most important verb is (yep): manger and it "takes" de [or du or des or d']. So, to eat bread is manger du pain. And if the word bread ain't there, you get "en manger". Veux-tu en manger? [Do you want to eat some?]

Another example: Veux-tu du pain maintenant? Oui, j'en veux maintenant. [This is: Yes, I want some now.].

Your best bet is to try and learn the basic verbs in the basic tenses (present, passé composé, which is simple past in English]. You might start with aller, voir, and faire. They are all irregular. Then, go for three categories of regular groups of verbs. ending in ER (marcher, parler), IR (finir), and en ir-re-oir (prendre, partir, vouloir).

I suggest you watch French movies with the closed captions turned on in French. Children's books are good too. Try to repeat what you hear even if you do not understand it. In a couple of months after you do this, say, five to six hours a week, your understanding will soar.

Unfortunately, learning a language is a hard row to hoe and you're better off having a basic idea of patterns (i.e. grammar).

I merely have tried to give you a taste of what awaits you. Another common feature of French, is that French doesn't like too vowels together. So, that's why they write: Je n'y crois pas instead of: Je ne y crois pas. These are contracted forms. All the details are too hard to learn at once, but just knowing that will help you come to recognize this. Il n'y va pas. He is not going there. The ne followed by y becomes: n'y. To avoid two vowels together.

Finally, I think the Alliance Française has online courses. They present material in a graduated fashion, and make one or two points per lesson. I am sure they have online speech exercises. Good luck with your endeavors.

  • 1
    A few comment about your reply which is interesting because it points out some difficulties learners have with the French language that many native French speakers might not even guess. J'en ai décidé is formal and only works when followed by ainsi or something similar. In your example, that should be je l'ai décidé. If this is about spoken French, you might want to replace the almost unused Nous nous en allons by the mainstream on s'en va, same with inversions which are mostly dropped like Voulez-vous / Vous voulez, Veux-tu du pain maintenant? / Tu veux du pain maintenant ?
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 1:36
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    @StianYttervik On is a third person singular noun; il, elle, and on. BUT, ****the meaning is we, they, [people]**** [or a passive meaning]. And, on is always conjugated with a verb in the third person singular: On mange du pain à midi. On va au cinema les lundis. On n'aime pas trop ce type. Here's a famous saying with on: On ne prête qu'aux riches. Only rich people can get loans.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:42
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    @StianYttervik If you and I are having a heated discussion, I might say to you: On* ne va tout de même pas se disputer pour ça?? We're not going to have a fight about this, are we?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:45
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    Yes, tu veux du pain maintenant is the standard spoken French way, including when mothers speak to their children. Some French people believe they don't speak that way even while they actually do. People saying in real life Veux-tu du pain maintenant are essentially either non native speakers, French teachers or Académie française immortals ;-) Teaching Nous nous en allons but not on s'en va is (a little) like promoting thou art leaving.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:58
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    I do not pretend expertise in English, not even in French for that matter, I am and will always be a learner and I always welcome any advice. It is unfortunate you stubbornly refuse to accept that you are not a native French speaker and that you can make mistakes. One more time: j'en ai décidé as a standalone sentence is not French, that must be je l'ai décidé. As you do not trust people here, I would suggest you to ask that question to the Académie française; or to a native French teacher, or read Wrong: J'en ai décidé.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 0:17

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