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“Il y a” in French: Pronunciation, Meaning and Usages [With Audio]

The French expression il y a is one of the most commonly used phrases in everyday conversation.

Its main meaning is “there is” or “there are.”

As you start to consume French content and hear French conversations, you’ll see it popping up everywhere. 

It’s one of those very simple yet absolutely essential phrases to know.

In this post, you’ll learn how to use il y a properly in different contexts including positive and negative sentences and questions.  


When Il y a Means “There Is” or “There Are”

The most common and well-known translation of il y a is “there is” or “there are.” Fortunately, il y a doesn’t change in most grammatical contexts. For once, the French counterpart is simpler than the English!

While we differentiate between singular (“there is”) and plural (“there are,”) il y a is used in both cases:

Il y a toujours un livre dans ma voiture. (There is always a book in my car.)

Il y a plusieurs étudiants internationaux à mon école. (There are several international students at my school.)

Even more good news: il y a doesn’t change for gender. Even if you’re talking about something feminine, you say il:

Il y a une robe sur le lit. (There is a dress on the bed.)

Il y a un gâteau sur la table. (There is a cake on the table.)

Il y a in other tenses 

Although il y a never changes for number or gender, it may change depending on verb tense. The most common alternate forms to remember are il y avait (there were) and il y aura (there will be).

As you can see, you essentially need to conjugate the verb avoir (to have) in the third person and the tense you need. 

Il y avait beaucoup de pluie pendant nos vacances. (There was a lot of rain during our vacation.)

Il y aura environ 200 personnes au mariage. (There will be about 200 people at the wedding.)

Common Constructions with Il y a 

You’ll most often see il y a in one of these three constructions:  

When Il y a Means “Ago”

Il y a is also commonly used when talking about time. Just include il y a, a period of time and some kind of action or event. This construction conveys the meaning of “ago”—how much time has elapsed since something has taken place.

For example:

Elle a dîné il y a deux heures. (She dined two hours ago.)

Il y a dix mois que j’ai déménagé à Chicago. (Ten months ago, I moved to Chicago.)

Il y a and the period of time may come before or after the main action. However, as in the second sentence, if il y a precedes the action, que must connect the two. To provide another example, the first sentence could be rephrased as:

Il y a deux heures qu’elle a dîné. (She dined two hours ago.)

Note that il y a is used with a completed action—something that’s already over and done with. She isn’t eating dinner right now—she finished two hours ago. 

You can learn about the differences between depuis, pendant and il y a here.

Using Il y a for Distance and Direction

Although this usage is less common, il y a may also be employed to indicate how far away a place is. For example:

Il y a moins d’un kilomètre d’ici à la boulangerie. (It’s less than a kilometer from here to the bakery. *Literally: There’s less than a kilometer from here to the bakery.)

Il y a 490 kilomètres entre Paris et Strasbourg. (There are 490 kilometers between Paris and Strasbourg.)

Using Il n’y a pas for Negation

If il y a typically means “there is” or “there are,” then il n’y a pas means  “there isn’t” or “there aren’t.”

Once you’ve been introduced to il y a, it isn’t hard to become familiar with il n’y a pas. Just remember the proper placement of nil n‘y a pas.

Il n’y a pas de viande dans ce repas. (There’s no meat in this meal.)

Il n’y a pas de mensonges dans ce témoignage. (There are no lies in this testimony.)

Did you notice the use of de in both those sentences? Indefinite articles (un, une) and partitive articles (including de la, du, de l’ and des) become de when used with negation. Compare the first example above to its equivalent in the affirmative form:

Il y a de la viande dans ce repas. (There’s meat in this meal.)

While de la communicates the idea of “some,” de with ne… pas tells us that there’s absolutely no meat in the meal.

You might recall that there are several ways to make a sentence negative in French, each having a specific meaning, including:

• Ne… personne (No one, nobody)
• Ne… nulle part (Nowhere)
• Ne… jamais (Never)
• Ne… rien (Nothing)
• Ne… plus (Not anymore)

These are formed in the same way as il n’y a pas. Simply replace pas with the alternate word.

Il n‘y a personne là. (There’s no one there.)

Il n‘y avait rien à faire. (There was nothing to do.)

In this previous example, avoir is conjugated in the imperfect form (avait) because we’re talking about a past situation in which there was nothing to do. Despite this change, il and remain the same.

Il y a in Questions

Y a-t-il is the inverted form of il y a that’s often employed in questions. The English equivalent would be “is there?” or “are there?”

Y a-t-il des cravates dans ce magasin ? (Are there ties in this store?)

Y a-t-il un médecin ici ? (Is there a doctor here?)

There’s another, simpler, way of asking a question with il y a: Est-ce qu’il y a…?  (Is there/are there…?)

Est-ce qu’il y a un médecin ici ? (Is there a doctor here?)

The question means the same thing both ways. In the second one, we simply keep the normal il y a and add est-ce que (literally, “is it that”), which signals that we’re asking a question.

Here’s another example:

Est-ce qu’il y a un étudiant français dans ta classe ?  (Is there a French student in your class?)


Now that you know about il y a and all its forms, make sure you practice it! Keep an eye out for this phrase as you read, watch or listen to French content, and see if you can identify its meaning according to the context.

For a bit more support, you can use a language learning program like FluentU which features authentic French videos with interactive subtitles, supplying contextual information on il y la and other phrases with just a tap.

And one more thing...

If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.

FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:


FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.


For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:


Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."


All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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