To say "I was there" would you say <j'étais là> or <j'y étais>? Why would you choose one over the other? I understand that both versions literally translate to "I was there" but what are the specific contexts in which you would choose one over the other?
Both "y" and "là" can mean "there", but there are differences in nature and in usage:
- "là" is an adverb which can only refer to a place. As an adverb, it can be at various locations in the sentence
- "y" is a nonpersonal pronoun which stands for any "à + noun" combination - not just locations. It is always placed right before or right after the verb.
It depends upon whether you want to stress the "was" or the "there".
- I hear Jean and Jacques had a big argument.
- I know. I was there! (J'étais là)
- I thought you'd be here at the mall.
- I had to come home. I was there. (J'y étais)
French doesn't make much use of word stress, so the different wording makes it obvious whether "là" or "étais" is the more important word.