“Avoir” or “Être” for the Helping Verb? Ask Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp

Have you met Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp yet?

Oh, you simply must.

They’re a little nerdy, sure, but they make such a cute couple.

And they’re about to become your new French best friends (and not the false kind!).

No, Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp aren’t awesome online French tutors.

They’re not famous authors who have become accomplished in the art of writing in French.

They’re not even real people, but they’re not the lead-in to a French joke, either, even if they sound pretty funny.

What they are is a lifesaving tool to help you memorize one of the toughest French grammar exceptions.

This post will introduce you to them.

What Are Vandertramp Verbs and Why Do They Matter?

First off, let’s get one thing straight: If you ask any French person about Vandertramp verbs, they’ll probably look at you quite quizzically.

The Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp mnemonic is one used exclusively by foreign language learners to help remember an essential French grammar exception.

But to understand the exception, you first must understand the rule. Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp verbs apply to the passé composéa French verb tense that is used to talk about the past. As its name (which translates to “composed past”) suggests, the passé composé is made up of two parts: the auxiliary verb and the past participle of the lexical verb.

Too much grammar-ese? Let’s break it down further.

The auxiliary verb is also sometimes known as the “helping” verb in English. It’s a verb that doesn’t have any lexical meaning but rather performs a grammatical function. In the case of the passé composé, its presence lets the listener know that the verb phrase is in the past. The lexical verb, on the other hand, is the verb that brings actual meaning to the sentence.

For example:

J’ai parlé avec ma mère. (I spoke with my mother.)

In this sentence, the auxiliary verb is avoirthe one that is conjugated, in the simple present tense. The lexical verb is parler, and the past participle of the lexical verb is used.

Quick Past Participle Review

Past participles generally follow a simple rule.

For verbs ending in -er, the past participle is made by adding the suffix to the root:

parler (to speak) → parlé

dessiner (to draw) → dessiné

tomber (to fall) → tombé

For verbs ending in -ir, the past participle is made by adding the suffix -i to the root:

choisir (to choose) → choisi

finir (to finish) → fini

pâlir (to become pale) → pâli

For verbs ending in -re, the past participle is made by adding the suffix -u to the root:

descendre (to go down) → descendu

rendre (to return) → rendu

fendre (to split) → fendu

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Here are a few of the most common irregular past participles:

devoir (to have to) → 
avoir (to have) → eu
(to be able to) → pu
(to do/make) → fait
savoir (to know) su
connaître (to know) connu
(to see) → vu
(to drink) → bu
(to want) → voulu

For more information about past participles, check out our guide to French past tenses.

Auxiliary Verbs

In most cases, the auxiliary verb used in the passé composé is avoirThe verb is conjugated in the present according to the subject pronoun being used. However, in certain exceptional cases être is used—and that’s where our friends the Vandertramps come in.

Memorizing the Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp Verbs

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp as a Mnemonic Device

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp is a mnemonic device used to remember which verbs are conjugated with être as opposed to avoir in the passé composé. These are the verbs that are associated with the mnemonic:

Devenir (to become)
Revenir (to come back)

Monter (to go up)
Retourner (to return)
Sortir (to go out)

Venir (to come)
Aller (to go)
Naître (to be born)
Descendre (to go down)
Entrer (to enter)
Rentrer (to go home/to return)
Tomber (to fall)
Rester (to remain)
Arriver (to arrive)
Mourir (to die)
Partir (to leave)

For many, the easiest way to learn these verbs is to simply memorize the phrase, filling each verb in next to the appropriate letter and using the mnemonic as a guide. However, there are other ways to memorize these verbs that you may prefer.

The House Mnemonic

This is a different mnemonic device used to remember the Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp verbs that involves drawing a house. Draw a house with a door, stairs and windows, then label it with the être verbs. This becomes a circuit.

First, someone arrives at the house (arriver)He has come (venir) to the house. Then he enters (entrer) the house and goes up the stairs (monter). Then he goes downstairs (descendre). Then he returns upstairs (retourner) and falls down the stairs (tomber). He remains in the house for a bit (rester) before deciding to leave (partir)He tries the door, but sees that it’s locked, so he goes out (sortir) the window. And then he goes (aller) on his way.

This mnemonic also includes one verb that doesn’t feature in the Vandertramp mnemonic, passer par

When passer (to pass) is used without the preposition par (by), it uses avoir.

J’ai passé un bon moment hier soir. (I had a good time last night.)

J’ai passé la compote au chinois. (I passed the applesauce through a strainer.)

J’ai passé le pain à Hervé. (I passed the bread to Hervé.)

However, when par is added, passer takes être.

Je suis passé par la petite rue derrière chez toi. (I passed by/via the little road behind your house.)

The same is true with other prepositions:

Je suis passé devant la bibliothèque. (I passed by the library.)

Je suis passé au supermarché. (I went to the supermarket.)

While the mnemonic doesn’t include all of the prepositions, passer par or passer devant is easily inserted into the house circuit (for example, passer devant by the window or passer par in the kitchen), and this makes it easy to remember that every time passer is used with a preposition, it becomes one of the members of the house verbs.

With this mnemonic, the derivatives (devenir, revenir, rentrer) as well as the beginning and end-of-life verbs (naître, mourir) must be memorized and remembered separately. This is the mnemonic preferred by most French mother tongue learners, as it’s a very visual way of learning.

Exceptions to the Vandertramp Rule

It wouldn’t be a French grammar rule without a few exceptions. You’ll see certain Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp verbs used with the auxiliary avoirand this is not necessarily a mistake—a change in auxiliary can reflect a change in meaning of the verb.

For example, even though sortir is a Vandertramp verb, you can see the sentence J’ai sorti les poubelles, meaning “I took out the trash.”

Here are a few other such examples:

J’ai monté les courses jusqu’au troisième étage. (I carried the groceries up to the third floor.)

J’ai retourné mon T-shirt. (I turned my T-shirt inside out.)

J’ai sorti le chien. (I took the dog outside.)

J’ai descendu les bouteilles au recyclage. (I took the bottles down to the recycling bin.)

J’ai rentré les donnés dans le tableau. (I entered the data into the table.)

The reason for these exceptions is a bit complex—you may just want to remember that when the Vandertramp verbs are transitive (i.e., they take a direct object), they are conjugated in the past with avoir instead of être.

Exercise Bank

Of course, the best way to get a handle on these somewhat tricky verbs is to try them out. Here are some of our favorite exercises using the Vandertramp verbs:

And be aware—these aren’t just useful for the passé composé. 

Any composed tense, from the plus-que-parfait to the past conditional, will use the same rule.

Might as well get it mastered now!

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