When learning French, there is often a little confusion when translating ‘There is/are’. To be sure, you know that both ‘voilà’ and ‘il y a’ are both candidates for the job – but which one to use? It will help if you know that ‘voilà’ is a contraction of ‘vois là’ which means ‘see there’ just as ‘voici’ (‘here is/are’) is ‘vois ici’. Put simply, ‘voilà’ and ‘voici’ are used for pointing things out: ‘voilà un joli jardin’ ’voilà le marteau, sous la table’ (hammer) ‘ voici 20€ pour les sandwiches’.

You can also say:

me, te, le, la, nous, vous, les/voilà /voici

e.g. le voilà – there he/it is. les voilà – there they are
me voici – here I am Voici Pierre qui vient – Here comes Pierre

‘Il y a’, on the other hand, is not a pointy out phrase but is used to make a statement:

‘Il y a un joli garden près de la Tour Eiffel’ ‘Il y a un marteau dans le garage’ ‘Il y a un restaurant près d’ici. Ah! le voilà’

Both phrases are used to convey a sense of ‘ago’: ‘Il y a une semaine j’étais à Paris’ – a week ago I was in Paris , ‘Nous avons fini il y a quelques minutes’ – we finished a few minutes ago.
‘Voilà’ is a little less formal. ‘Voilà trois ans que je fais le français’ – it’s been three years I’ve been doing French, ‘Voilà une heure que je t’attends’ – that’s an hour I’ve been waiting for you.

Use ‘voilà’ when you hand something to someone (a drink, etc) and it means ‘here you are’ or, if you must, ‘there you go’.

You’ll probably hear it when two people are talking (let’s hope one is you). It’s a sort of confirmation that the listener is following what is being said and agrees, or a way of saying ‘you’re right’. I once was walking in a rambling club behind two ladies, one of whom was holding forth on something or other. The one listening said ‘voilà’ so many times that I started to count them. She said it seven times, not including the ones I counted. When I hear ‘voilà’ used like this, I can’t help think of Basil Fawlty’s wife on the phone to her chum – ‘I know’ ‘yes, I know’, ‘I know’

It’s worthwhile having a look at ‘voilà’ in the dictionary to see more examples of how it’s used.

Roger Ayling

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Learning French – Voila or il y a?

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