When do I use en?

As a rough guide, en placed before the verb means 'of it' or 'of them'. On this page, we look at some examples of how exactly the word en is used in French.

Different uses of en

Use with numbers and quantities

A common use of en is with a number or quantity. Note that in such cases, its common to omit the 'of it/them' in English. But in French, en is generally necessary with a number or quantity if no actual noun phrase is specified. For example:

Combien de pommes voulez-vous? J'en veux trois.
How many apples do you want? I want three.
Combien de frères avez-vous? J'en ai deux.
How many brothers do you have? I've got two.
Il m'en reste deux cents grammes.
I've got two hundred grammes (of it) left.
Il y en a trop.
There are too many (of them).
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Equivalent of 'some' or 'any'

In sentences like the following, en can be used to mean 'some of it', 'some of them'. In English, speakers tend simply to say 'some' or, in negative sentences, 'any':

Je n'ai pas de lait, mais je peux en acheter.
I don't have any milk, but I can buy some
Si tu n'as pas de sucre, je peux t'en donner.
If you don't have any sugar, I can give you some.
Je ne peux pas t'en donner.
I can't give you any.

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Use of en alongside de...

It is possible to have a sentence with both en and a corresponding phrase with de .... This sometimes occurs for emphasis, especially with words such as beaucoup, trop, tant:

Des CDs de Chopin, vous en avez beaucoup?
Do you have a lot of Chopin CDs?
J'en ai trop vu, de ces individus!
I've seen enough of these people!
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Equivalent of 'of it/them', 'its'

A usage which is declining in everyday French, but which you may see particularly in literature, is to use en as the equivalent of "of it/them" to indicate either possession or a characteristic of something such as its shape or colour. Thomas (1970) gives the following examples:

Ces tableaux, j'en aime les teintes délicates.
"These paintings, I like of them the delicate hues."
="... I like their delicate hues."
Ces arbes sont magnifiques et les fruits en sont excellents.
"These trees are splendid and the fruits of them are excellent."
="... and their fruits are excellent."
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In practice, however, this construction is now rare and sounds odd to many French speakers (not least several who have written to remind me of this fact after reading this web site!). Instead, French would nowadays tend to use a similar pattern to English, using son/sa/ses and leur(s) to refer to attributes of objects as well as people. So these sentences would tend to become: j'aime leurs teintes... and leurs fruits sont excellents.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.