Consider the two sentences: Il vient. vs Il s'en vient.

As far as I can tell, both are translated to English as He is coming/approaching. so I am guessing that the difference is a subtlety that can be expressed in French, but not directly in English.

So my question is, could somebody explain the difference in meaning between these two sentences? I've read that one can mean "self-propelled movement or displacement" vs "movement due to some external agency" or something very nuanced like that. Maybe somebody could explain that in greater detail.

Now, I've talked to a friend who is a native speaker of French, and she told me that Il s'en vient. is never used in modern French, and that it sounds archaic. However, modern French has Il s'en va. meaning He is going away.. But my question is more about the subtle difference in meaning, rather than how are they used in modern French. Il s'en vient. is, for example, used in this poem: Le facteur

The real reason I am asking is because I am studying Middle Egyptian, and the textbook I am using mentions a similar subtlety, which is difficult to translate to English, but apparently, it is equivalent to these two sentences in French. The Egyptian sentences are: jw=f ḥr jjt. vs jw=f m jjt. (this is what Egyptologists call the pseudo-verbal construction, but this is all irrelevant to my question, which is about French). Instead of explaining the difference in detail, the author says that it is like in French, which is a problem to me, because I do not speak French at all and I can barely understand written French.

  • What about... coming... well ? For sure, I'd welcome you for considering some parallel. Of course, it won't be enough. The évolution in the meaning of the en pronoun in french bringing a much more complicated problem. – aCOSwt Dec 23 '18 at 10:00

It is impossible to gain an appreciable undertanding of the nuance sought without poring over a copious supply of examples from the literature. As your knowledge of French is inexistant, this is a serious drawback in your striving towards acquiring some notions on this point, which after all might only be a point of detail. Nevertheless, I would find it regrettable not to mention the few examples I can gather and in doing so to deprive the general reader of as wide a basis as possible for his/her assessment of the claims I'll make; as I can't take the time for a careful translation, I can only hope that a possible prolonged interest in elucidating this point will have you return to these sentences when made aware of a means to obtain a translation. I think that the very general terms used in characterising the nuance are justified as the nuance is not really a single entity but rather several, although each one is to be traced back to the general designation given. I do not claim, though, to be able to make out clearly a connection for all the examples given.

  1. Votre Altesse donc quitte Ferrare et s'en vient secrètement à Venise, presque sans suite, affublée d'un faux nom napolitain, et alors que moi je l'étais d'un faux nom espagnol. (V. HUGO, Lucrèce Borgia, 1833, I, 2, p. 27).

  2. Un froid avant-coureur s'en vient nous annoncer Que le chaud de la fièvre aux membres va passer. (LA FONTAINE, Le Quinquina, éd. H. Regnier, VI, p. 330)

  3. Avec son chant calmeur qui soulage les âmes (...) La mer s'en vient mourir en rythmes cadencés (H. DE RÉGNIER, Premiers poèmes, Apaisement, 1886, p. 88).

  4. Et la petite Primaverile s'en vient à nous, capricante, menue, les yeux luisants comme deux gouttes de café.

  5. Le Christ crucifère, qui s'en vient vers toi (CLAUDEL, Corona Benignitatis, 1915, p. 407).

  6. ... avec dix chevaliers d'un sang très noble issus, Don Fadrique s'en vient de Coïmbre à Séville. Le jeune Maître, né de Doña Léonor, sur sa mule à grelots précède l'équipée, ... (Doña.)

  7. Partout l'automne est mélancolique, chargé du regret de ce qui s'en va et de la menace de ce qui s'en vient; mais sur le sol canadien, il est plus mélancolique et plus émouvant qu'ailleurs, et pareil à la mort d'un être humain que les dieux rappellent trop tôt...

  8. Tout là-bas sur le Rhin s'en vient une nacelle Et mon amant s'y tient il m'a vue il m'appelle (APOLL., Alcools, 1913, p.116).

  9. Tiens, il s'en vient me quêter (Canada 1930).

  10. La lumière qui se filtre par la verdure tendre des marronniers s'en vient voluter autour de ses formes que la marche ondule. (MORÉAS, Le Thé chez Miranda, 1886, p. 17 ds RHEIMS 1969)

The "self propelled" aspect of displacement, as characteristic in the meaning of "vient" has to do with the relative wilfulness or rather amount of willpower, decisiveness and deliberateness found as a prime mover in the entity's conscience as an explanation and a characteristic of how the displacement is brought about. By opposition the "motion due to external agency" aspect has to do with a relative absence of those qualities either as a consequence of the entity's nature, which is a human creature at times but also often enough not a creature and typically a physical phenomenon that evolves over a short enough period of time. For this reason the cases collected above as pertain to "s'en vient" concern either beings whose maturity is far from having come to the full, human beings that do not act in a deliberate manner, or physical phenomena endowed with the characteristic of having a dynamic nature and things the nature of which is by definition associated with displacement (stars, ships, clouds, herds of cattle, patches of vegetation, etc.) ; in the examples we find the sensation of cold, the sea, the changes brought by the autumn, a frail craft, the light,…

As relating to small children the term "willy-nilly" is one of the those to associate with this idea and here is an example of mine to help drive this notion home;

The little girl went willy nilly from her father to her mother, her gaze arrested by turns on this and that as she tottered along. (One can't be quite sure there is a sense of purpose in the child's mind.)

Let's see what can be said of that poem, « Le Facteur » ; « Il s’en vient, d’un pas régulier, » is meant to confer, it could be said, that in his routine, daily action the postman seems to be led by the ever same path used daily rather than to be moving along it in a deliberate manner.

  • Thank you for the response. This is quite useful, even if I just barely understand the meaning of the examples provided, and cannot appreciate them fully. As I've mentioned in the question, my goal is to learn ancient Egyptian, and the problem with pseudo-verbal constructions in that language is presented to me by analogy to French, which I don't fully understand. But now I'm beginning to see that, at least, the difference exists, which previously, I couldn't see at all. – Kresimir Dec 23 '18 at 10:10

No native speaker but I give a try. See here:


Your French friend is right. It is considered obsolete in France but it is still in use in Canada.

Another source indicates that it has a literary usage:


There is also a nice thread (in English) here:


To the best of my understanding, I would translate it

Il s'en vient=> He is coming (from there).

That is en is a pronoun that can be translated from there. Like

J'y vais=>I'm going (there).


Je m'en vais=>I'm off / I'm leaving (from here).

  • I think it's from here, not from there, in your last translation. – Matthieu Brucher Dec 22 '18 at 22:15
  • @MatthieuBrucher Thanks. If the only problem with my answer was this here/there issue, I'm rather happy:-)! – dimitris Dec 22 '18 at 22:18
  • Could you explain the difference in regards to "self-propelled" vs "motion due to external agency" aspect? What does that even mean? My question was not about the usage, but about the subtle difference in meaning that is difficult to express in English, but is (or, at least once upon a time was) expressible in French. Just translating it to English is of little use to me, unfortunately, because this nuance cannot be easily expressed in English. – Kresimir Dec 22 '18 at 22:21
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    @Kresimir Even here: cnrtl.fr/definition/venir I cannot find this nuance. And this is considered as the DEFINITE online source for French vocabulary. – dimitris Dec 22 '18 at 22:28
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    @Kresimir : IV. − Empl. pronom., vieilli ou région. S'en venir A. − [Sens spatial] Synon. de venir (supra I). 1. [Constr. sans compl. de lieu] Là-bas, au bout de l'allée, dans le sentier de lune, deux jeunes gens s'en venaient en se tenant par la taille. Ils s'en venaient, enlacés, charmants, à petits pas (Maupass., Contes et nouv., t. 1, J. Romain, 1886, p. 1298). 2. [Constr. avec un compl. indiquant le lieu où l'on va] Puche, à ce moment, était descendu de sa meule. Il s'en venait vers ses hommes d'un petit pas de promenade, en se dandinant (Benjamin, Gaspard, 1915, p. 59). – dimitris Dec 22 '18 at 22:29

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