From my understanding, “sont où ?” would mean “where are they?” so why is the “Y” at the start of the sentence needed? What does it convey?

  • 4
    "Sont où" or "Y sont où" alone does not mean anything. Où sont-ils would be common translation for "where are they". Or do you mean something else ?
    – Greg
    May 27, 2018 at 9:14
  • I found it as "Y sont oú, ces amis?", I assumed it meant "where are they?, those friends", so it'd be understandable with just "Y sont oú" May 27, 2018 at 9:43
  • 1
    I also found the following list lexiquefle.free.fr/banlieue/vocabulaire.pdf Last entry contains exactly this thing (informal meaning of y). Nice question:-)!
    – Dimitris
    May 28, 2018 at 7:57
  • @Greg thats not true. This is a very common and familiar way to ask "where are they". At least in Quebec it is.
    – ApplePie
    May 30, 2018 at 1:13
  • I had not thought indeed of the transcription of the "ils" with elision as "y". It is also common in spoken European French, but the written transcription as "y" is much less common and would be restricted to transcribing speech such as eg in dialogues in a comics, texting, etc.
    – Greg
    May 30, 2018 at 4:50

4 Answers 4


"Y" stands for "Ils" in familiar spoken language, it should be "Ils sont où ?"

But the correct form is:

Où sont-ils ?

  • 4
    “Où sont-ils ?” is the correct formal form, but it is not the only correct form. “Ils sont où ?” is correct informal spoken French. May 27, 2018 at 19:46
  • @Gilles: C'est exactement ce que je dis.
    – Toto
    May 27, 2018 at 20:03
  • 1
    Tu as écrit but the correct form is qui sous entend que c'est la seule forme correcte alors que ils sont où ? l'est aussi.
    – jlliagre
    May 27, 2018 at 21:31

The formal way to ask “Where are they?” in French is “Où sont-ils ?”. In informal spoken French, questions are often expressed by using the same word order as in an affirmative sentence (subject-verb-complements) and indicating that the sentence is a question solely through a rising tone at the end or, with a question word, just by the presence of the question word: “Ils sont où ?”. This is generally mentioned in grammar books.

In very informal spoken French, subject pronouns can be weakened. All the subject pronouns consist of a single syllable with a consonant and a vowel, and the weakened form is usually made by dropping the second sound. This is especially common with children, but it isn't limited to children. Many grammar books don't mention this and books won't use those forms unless they're conveying very informal speech on purpose.

  • jej' even when not followed by a vowel. When the verb begins with a [s] sound, [ʒs] turns into [ʃ].

    J'veux pas !   (Je ne veux pas. — “I dun wanna!”)
    Chais pas.   (Je ne sais pas. — “I dunno.”)

  • tu → t' (but rarely before a consonant)

    T'es pas cap !   (Tu n'est pas capable. — lit. “you aren't able”, means “you don't dare”)

  • il(s)y before a consonant
    ilsy-z- before a vowel (the liaison stays)
    elle(s)è or y, but this is rare
    il/ellel' sometimes before a vowel
    çaa, also rare

    L'est où ?   (Où est-il/elle ? — “Where is he/she?” — rare)
    Y sont où ?   (Où sont-ils ? — “Where are they?”)
    Y-z-ont rien vu.   (Ils n'ont rien vu. — “They din't see nuffin'.”)
    A veut pas marcher.   (Ça ne veut pas marcher = Ça ne marche pas — “It's not workin'”)

    In “il y a” (and other tenses: il y avait, etc.), the word il disappears completely in this informal construction, and the y is pronounced as a semi-vowel [j]: “y'a” (pronounced as a single syllable [ja]), y'avait, etc.

  • nous doesn't have a weakened form, but in informal speech it's replaced by on which is a single sound so can't be weakened any further.

    On a gagné.   (Nous avons gagné. — “We won.”)

  • vousz' — unlike the other weakened forms I listed, which are fairly modern, this one is rather old-fashioned.

There are many variations on how to phrase questions in informal spoken French. The question word can stay at the beginning: “Où ils sont ?”, “Où y sont ?”. The medium-formality form “Où est-ce qu'ils sont ?” is rarely used in full, but can be shortened to the very informal “Où qu'y sont ?”. This form can in turn be reinforced to put the emphasis on the question: “Où qu'c'est qu'y sont ?”, “Où qu'est-c'qu'y sont ?”, “Où qu'est qu'c'est qu'y sont ?”…

  • 1
    Yes, the author was conveying very familiar speech and I had only come across the formal forms up until now, thanks a lot for this explanation, it'll help me in the future. May 27, 2018 at 20:34
  • Existe-t-Il des livres dans lesquels on peut trouver de telles informales structures ?
    – Dimitris
    May 27, 2018 at 21:43
  • 1
    Il y a aussi le très courant où y sont ? d'autre part,è pour elle est courant (ex: è veut pas) mais as-tu des exemples de y pour elle(s) ?
    – jlliagre
    May 27, 2018 at 21:49
  • @jlliagre Je l'entend de temps en temps mais je n'ai pas tendance à l'utiliser. Comme tu peux t'y attendre, je n'ai pas d'exemple écrit sous la main. May 27, 2018 at 22:48
  • @dimitris Le Dictionnaire du français non conventionnel peut-être ? Je ne sais pas s'il y a des détails grammaticaux ou seulement du vocabulaire. May 27, 2018 at 22:50

Although it is hard to be sure without any context, "Y sont où?" is probably how the autor conveys a very informal spoken version of "Où sont-ils ?". It is very usual to lose the interrogative inversion in spoken language, turning it in "Ils sont où ?". If you tell this fast enough this is soon heard as "Y sont où ?".

"Sont où" on the other hand is hardly used alone although some might argue that speaking even faster you could indeed not hear the "y".

Note that the direction of the diacritic on the "u" in your question is also wrong, actually I’m quite sure ú is never used in French.


I'm not native and I'm not familiar with this informal use of Y. Grammatically, neither sont où nor y sont où are correct.

With increasing level of formality the following are correct:

Ils sont où ? Où ils sont ?

Où est-ce qu'ils sont ?

Où sont-ils ?

Googling a little, I encountered y sont où, les/ces/...? in various forums but I did not find any appearance of this structure in a grammar book or a grammar-oriented web-page.

On the contrary the affirmative phrase:

Ils y sont.

meaning they are there is correct.

Sont-ils à l'école/au théâtre ? Oui, ils y sont.


  • Y in “Y sont où ?” is a weakening of “ils” in informal spoken French and is unrelated to the adverb. May 27, 2018 at 19:23
  • I said it to my answer that I am not familiar with this use. I tried to answer based on my knowledge of the French Grammar. In any case this use of Y is incorrect. So I believe it is better to mention the correct uses of Y in this context. Thanks for your comment.
    – Dimitris
    May 27, 2018 at 19:29
  • 1
    It is not correct in the sense of being mentioned in grammar books or being acceptable formal speech, but it is correct in the sense of being widely used by native speakers. May 27, 2018 at 19:47
  • Nevertheless I still believe that this usage is incorrect and should not be acceptable. But this is my humble opinion. French language as it presented in Grammar books and classic authors is formidable. On the contrary informal French usage as the use of y here (I am not talking about argot) may cause headache if not embarrassement to non natifs...
    – Dimitris
    May 27, 2018 at 20:02
  • Non-natives should be very cautious of using very informal language, but at some point they should understand it. May 27, 2018 at 20:24

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