How to say There is and There was in French : Il y a/ Il y avait

learn french il y a il y avait

When I first learned about il y a in French, it sounded strange.

This phrase didn’t seem necessary at first, but the more I read and communicated with French people, I realized it was one of the most used expressions in French.

It became clear that learning these three words can make communicating in French much easier.

Many learners ask what’s the difference between il y a and Il y avait.

Today, we’ll explain the difference and show you in which context these expressions appear.

What means il y a ?

Il y a is undoubtedly a phrase you’ll come across time and time again, not only in conversation, but in literature, film, and social media.

The reason this phrase is so common is that it has multiple meanings.

One of the first and the most used meanings is There is/There are. No wonder, this expression is one of the most common ones in French.

There is/ There are

Est-ce qu’il y a du beurre au frigo ?

Is there butter in the fridge?

Oui, il y a du beurre et aussi du lait.

Yes, there is butter and also milk.

Using Il y a  to express time

Il y ais also commonly used when talking about time. When followed by a period of time or temporal adverb, il y a is the French equivalent of “ago”.

Add il y a, a time period, and a completed action. With this construction, “ago” conveys how much time has elapsed since an event took place.

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.

Il y a une heure qu’il est arrivé.

She dined two hours ago.

Je lui ai parlé il y a deux semaines.

l talked to him two weeks ago.

Il y a 10 ans que j’ai déménagé.

I moved 10 years ago.

  Il y a indicates a completed action – something that’s already been completed.

Informal Il y a

French speakers will often shorten these phrases.  So, il y a becomes y a and il n’y a pas becomes y a pas. This is informal.

Y a pas de problème!

No problem! (There’s no problem)

What means Il y avait ?

As you may notice, the only thing that changed in this construction is the verb avoir.

Avait is the third-person singular of the imperfect in French, and this construction is used when discussing past actions.

Malcolm était différent car il avait un secret.

I thought Malcom was different though ’cause he had a secret.

Don’t confuse it with Il était une fois, which is how most fairy tales begin in French.

How to turn Il y a/ Il a avait in a negative phrase

Put n’ in front of y and pas after a to say “there isn’t” or “there aren’t.” If you negate the il y avait form, then the translation is there wasn’t/ there weren’t.

Il n’y a pas de problème.

There are no problems.

Il n’y avait pas de solution.

There wasn’t a solution.

Ready to try out the new French expression?

The expression Il y a may sound a bit weird at first. It’s true that it’s not the same as an English expression “there is/there are”, but it’s similar and even simpler in a way.

Make sure you learn how to use it in a sentence, and be aware of the correct negative form. You can always change the tense, by simply conjugating the verb avoir.

Now, the only thing left to do is practice.

Good luck.

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