So, “en” is an adverbial pronoun which is used to replace “de + nom”. But what noun does it replace in the mentioned phrase?

3 Answers 3


En, y and the reflexive pronouns are often used in a way which is not analyzable to modify the meaning of verbs (phrasal verbs in English are doing the same thing with prepositions). If the meaning of a sentence using these pronoun isn't clear it can be such use.

It is the case with être. There are several meanings associated with en être, in some of them en is still analyzable, it isn't the case here when en être means being at some step in an evolution or progression.

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    So, what you're saying is that in this case en doesn't replace de + nom construction? If so, it might be the similar use, like with the phrase s'en aller, for example, right?
    – jFrenetic
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 7:44
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    Note that in Brittany (and maybe elsewhere, but with people around France from Paris or the South, it seems that's only there), we often use « se Rendre » instead of « être » in this sentence. Ex.: « On est rendu où ? » for « On en est où ? », using the same change of word/meaning for « aller/être à un endroit » and « se rendre à ».
    – Larme
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 8:25
  • @Larme Thanks for your comment! Maybe you could clarify my last doubts about this phrase. So, in this construction en être doesn't replace de + nom, does it?
    – jFrenetic
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 15:16
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    @jFrenetic, en doesn't replace anything (or at least current speakers aren't conscious of what it refer to, it probably started to refer to something) in this case. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 15:26

If it helps, you can think of en as standing for the thing that was in progress.

Où était-on dans notre conversation ?

en était-on ?

However, as Un francophone points out, this is pretty much a fixed phrase. I couldn't tell if the grammatical construction really originates in this.

The good news is, once you know it, French actually makes it clearer than the more versatile English where were we ? ;)


"On en était où" est familier et peu correct.

Il faudrait dire "Où en étions-nous".

Quant à "où en était-on" c'est tellement laid phonétiquement qu'il faut le bannir, sans parler du phonème grotesque de la fin de la locution.

  • Merci, mais ce n'est pas la réponse à mon question.
    – jFrenetic
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 21:20

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