J’y suis allé mercredi dernier.
I went there last week.
Je vais y aller mercredi prochain.
I will go there next week.
The y meaning “there” switches places: it’s before suis but after vais. Now take a look a these two:
Je n’y suis pas allé.
I didn’t go there.
Je ne vais pas y aller.
I won’t go there.
The ne and the pas don’t switch places: they surround suis and vais. So why does the y move but the ne and the pas stay in the same place?
One approach to learning a language is not to worry too much: just keep listening and absorbing like a child and you’ll not make mistakes, as no French child does. That’s the theory, at any rate.
But a better way of securing the knowledge for most adults is to worry, just a little anyway: enough so that you know that what you are saying is right.
Je suis allé.
is a compound verb – le passé composé. That’s to say it is a fully-fledged tense in its own right. Any additional pronouns are tucked in between the subject (je) and the predicate (suis allé). The negation surrounds the auxiliary suis.
Je vais aller.
– le futur immédiat – is not a tense in the same way. It is closer to the English modal constructions: “I will go, I might go” and so on. A modal takes a verb in the infinitive such as “go” and then passes a value judgement on that verb. We can put brackets in to make the syntax clearer:
I will [go] I might [go]
It’s the same in the French futur immédiat:
Je vais [aller].
So any pronouns that modify or define the verb being judged therefore need to be applied to that verb: the infinitive that follows:
Je vais [y aller].
But a negation doesn’t normally concern the verb being judged. It generally concerns the value judgement:
Will I or won’t I [do something]?
Similarly in the French futur immédiat, the negation is applied to the verb aller, which is sometimes referred to as a “semi-auxilliary”.
Je ne vais pas [y aller].
It’s the same with other modal-judgement-type verbs such as pouvoir and vouloir:
Je ne veux pas [y aller].
Je n’ai pas voulu [y aller].
Je ne peux pas [y aller].
Je n’ai pas pu [y aller].
The order of pronouns
Another thing you were supposed to have learnt at school but might just have forgotten is the order of pronouns.
Take a look at these examples:
Je donne le bouquet de fleurs à toi.
Je te le donne.
Je donne le bouquet de fleurs à Louise.
Je le lui donne.
The pronoun le refers to the bouquet of flowers in both examples. So why does it come after te but before lui?
One way to get this is to think of the order of pronouns like a game of whist in which you have jokers, trumps, royalty, high cards and low cards. In a French affirmative sentence, the subject pronoun (je, tu,elle, il, on, nous, vous, elles, ils) comes first. The order of pronouns that follow depends on how high they rank.
The Jokers – Reflexive pronouns
Il adore le parc. Il s’y promène régulièrement.
Trumps – The Deictics
me, te, nous, vous
Deictic pronouns are those whose reference depends on the perspective of the person talking. If I talk about “me” or “you” I am referring to a different person than if you talk about “me” or “you”: so “me” and “you” are deictics. (Unlike “him”: if I or you refer to “him”, the reference does not depend on our unique perspective).
Deictic pronouns are the next most valuable cards when it comes to French word order. This is true whether they are direct object pronouns or indirect object pronouns:
Je vous ai vu dans le jardin. Je vous y ai vu.
J’ai déjà dit ça. Je te l’ai déjà dit.
Royalty – 3rd Person Direct Object pronouns
Je t’amène les enfants jeudi. Je te les amène jeudi.
High Cards – Human 3rd Person Indirect Object pronouns
The high cards are 3rd person indirect object pronouns that refer to living things (usually humans): lui and leur.
J’ai déjà dit ça à lui. Je le lui ai déjà dit.
Low Cards – Inanimate 3rd Person Indirect Object pronouns
Last of all – the furthest from the subject – come the indirect object pronouns that refer to inanimate objects: y and en.
L’assureur présente un contrat à ses futurs clients. Il leur en parle avec enthousiasme.
J’ai beaucoup de travail devant moi. Je vais m‘y mettre.
Putting it all together
All that is a lot – way too much – to carry around in your head every time you want to open your mouth and speak. Drill exercises are a good way of establishing automatic habits. And if you do want time to think, speak slowly and take whatever time it needs.