The Dr. And Mrs. Vandertramp Verbs: How to Know if You Should Use “Avoir” or “Être”

This post is going to introduce you to a lifesaving tool that will help you memorize one of the toughest French grammar exceptions: Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp.

And, no, they’re not awesome online French tutors. They’re also not lead-ins to a French joke, even if they sound pretty funny.

But they will have you improving your French skills in no time.


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 used exclusively by foreign language learners to remember an essential French grammar exception. But to understand the exception, you must first understand the rule.

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp verbs apply to the passé composé a French verb tense 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 avoir (to have)—the one conjugated in the simple present tense. The lexical verb is parler (to speak) and the past participle of the lexical verb ( parlé ) is used.

Quick Past Participle Review

Past participles generally follow a simple rule. For verbs ending in -er, -ir and -re, the past participle is made by adding the suffix , -i and -u to the root, respectively.

For example:

French VerbsPast Participle Form
parler (to speak) parlé (spoken)
dessiner (to draw) dessiné (drawn)
tomber (to fall) tombé (fallen)
choisir  (to choose) choisi (chosen)
finir (to finish) fini (finished)
pâlir  (to become pale) pâli (paled)
descendre (to go down) descendu (went down)
rendre (to return) rendu (returned)
fendre (to split) fendu (split)

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

French VerbsIrregular Past Participle Form
devoir (to have to) (should)
avoir (to have) eu (had)
pouvoir (to be able to) pu (could)
faire (to do/make) fait (did)
savoir (to know) su (known)
connaître (to know) connu (known)
voir (to see) vu (seen)
boire (to drink) bu (drank)
vouloir (to want) voulu (wanted)

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 (to be) is used—and that’s where our friends the Vandertramps come in.

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 associated with the mnemonic:

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp VerbsEnglish Translation
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 (pass by)

When  passer (to pass) is used without the preposition  par (by), it uses avoir. However, when par is added, passer takes être, and the same is true with other prepositions.

For example:

Passer With AvoirPasser With Être
J’ai passé un bon moment hier soir.

(I had a good time last night.)
Je suis passé par la petite rue derrière chez toi.

(I passed by/via the little road behind your house.)
J’ai passé la compote de pommes dans une passoire.

(I passed the applesauce through a strainer.)
Je suis passé devant la bibliothèque.

(I passed by the library.)
J’ai passé le pain à Hervé.

(I passed the bread to Hervé.)
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). 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 the 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 données 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:

Memorizing the Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp Verbs

The handy memory tricks above make Vandertramp verbs a lot easier to remember. But to really stick these verbs in your brain, you should try to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. This will get you accustomed to all aspects of French and make you internalize all the rules so they come to you more automatically. 

This can be done with all kinds of media over the internet or with language learning programs.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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

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

Might as well get it mastered now!

And one more thing...

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