An example sentence

Z a pris la serviette et en a frotté la chevelure de L, avant de la nouer en turban autour de sa tête. (from book: Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, author: Patrick Modiano, p. 28)

My translation

Z took the towel and rubbed the hair of L dry with it, before tying it into a turban around her head.

My thoughts

  • The first 'en' refers to the towel. (This usage of 'en' is hard for me to learn.)
  • The second 'en' just means 'in/into'. (This usage of 'en' is easier for me to learn.)


In order to get more familiar with the first use of 'en' : Can I say that 'en' is often used as a handle(/referral) for something mentioned earlier?

2 Answers 2


En is a pronoun in this case. It replaces nouns used with the preposition de, often a partitive (le partitif) pronoun. That can be a noun that takes the indefinite article de, du, de la, de l', and des. In general, when you see a form of de, it gets replaced with the pronoun en.

Here, the pronoun en goes with the verb frotter + de to replace de la serviette because you can use frotter quelque chose de, to cover something by rubbing it with something.

Le Robert gives the definition:

Frotter qqch. de, avec…, enduire par frottement.

From this definition, we see that the pronoun en is used with frotter de when the direct object means a person or part of a person:

[Le compl. d'obj. dir. désigne une pers. ou une partie d'une pers.] Le divin vieillard trempe un peu de coton dans une huile consacrée; il en frotte les tempes d'Atala (CHATEAUBR., Génie, t. 2, 1803, p. 256) TLFi

So it applies (literally) to L's hair being toweled off.

Effectively your translation of "with it" works. I might say "Z took the towel and used it to rub L's hair before wrapping it in a turban around her head."

More information on the pronoun en here.

The second en is a preposition, which like you said can be translated as in, into, or as or like (sorry I didn't see it in the question at first, thank you user LPH). It is not related to the pronoun.

  • So, I could replace it like that: _ ... et il a frotté la chevelure de L de la serviette,... _
    – colorblind
    Oct 31, 2020 at 17:24
  • Your answer was very helpful in many ways, I appreciate it very much.
    – colorblind
    Oct 31, 2020 at 17:25
  • La première partie de la réponse est fausse.
    – user25634
    Oct 31, 2020 at 17:26
  • La deuxième partie de la réponse est également fausse.
    – user25634
    Oct 31, 2020 at 17:29
  • Il n'y a rien d'enduit par frottement dans cette phrase; le sens de frotter n'est pas celui d'enduire dans ce contexte. Cette définition n'est pas la bonne.
    – LPH
    Oct 31, 2020 at 18:25

To keep it simple, the pronoun en replaces a groupe nominal preceded by de unless it is a person, e.g Il parle souvent de ses aventures becomes Il en parle souvent, that's the first en. The second en is a préposition, it can usually be substituted by comme or like in English: ".... avant de la nouer en turban" which is equivalent to ".... avant de la nouer comme un turban".

  • And for a person? Lets say: Il parle souvent de son frère. Is there a replacement?
    – colorblind
    Oct 31, 2020 at 18:50
  • You can say:Il en parle souvent but it is highly inadvisable doing so, the better formulation is:Il parle souvent de lui. Oct 31, 2020 at 19:01

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