Être vs. Avoir: A Complete Breakdown of 2 French Superverbs
It seems like the ultimate showdown.
An ongoing battle of wills between French verbs être (to be) and avoir (to have).
Être and avoir may engage in some friendly sparring from time to time, but they’re not enemies.
The true battle is learning when one is used over the other, and what specific rules govern their actions, and that’s what we’re going to cover in this post.
- Être and Avoir: The 2 Most Important Verbs in French
- Conjugating Être and Avoir
- Être vs. Avoir: When Should Each Be Used as an Auxiliary?
- Agreement with Être
- Être and Avoir Auxiliaries with a Direct Object
- Specific Uses of Avoir
- Specific Uses of Être
- Practicing Être and Avoir
Être and Avoir: The 2 Most Important Verbs in French
If you haven’t realized it yet, these two verbs are not only perhaps the most commonly used French verbs, but they’re infinitely useful in creating French’s compound verb tenses.
For starters, on their own, the verb être means “to be” and the verb avoir means “to have.” These two verbs are used in this simple sense to say things like je suis professeur (I am a teacher) or elle a une tasse (she has a cup).
However, these two verbs are much more complex than that, and their relationship to other verbs and each other is an interesting one.
In addition to already being very common verbs in the French language, these two verbs have very distinct functions outside of their simple meanings. Primarily, when used in conjunction with other “main” verbs, these two verbs are called “auxiliaries” and they create French’s many compound tenses.
Être and avoir’s roles as auxiliaries will be the primary focus of this post. But before we get into that, let’s be practical and confront conjugation.
Conjugating Être and Avoir
Unfortunately for learners, these two verbs are pretty irregular. But once you know the present tense and the stems, they’re fairly simple to conjugate in l’imparfait (imperfect past) and le futur simple (simple future).
How to Conjugate Être
Let’s start with être. These are its conjugations in the present tense:
Je suis (I am)
Tu es (you are)
Il/elle/on est (he/she/one is)
Nous sommes (we are)
Vous êtes (you [plural/formal] are)
Ils/elles sont (they are)
And the imperfect, with the stem ét-:
J’étais (I was)
Tu étais (you were)
Il/elle/on était (he/she/one was)
Nous étions (we were)
Vous étiez (you were)
Ils/elles étaient (they were)
And the simple future, with the stem ser-:
Je serai (I will be)
Tu seras (you will be)
Il/elle/on sera (he/she/one will be)
Nous serons (we will be)
Vous serez (you will be)
Ils/elles seront (they will be)
How to Conjugate Avoir
Now let’s check out the conjugations of avoir in the present, imperfect with the stem av- and the future with the stem aur-:
J’ai (I have)
Tu as (you have)
Il/elle/on a (he/she/one has)
Nous avons (we have)
Vous avez (you have)
Ils/elles ont (they have)
J’avais (I had)
Tu avais (you had)
Il/elle/on avait (he/she/one had)
Nous avions (we had)
Vous aviez (you had)
Ils/elles avaient (they had)
J’aurai (I will have)
Tu auras (you will have)
Il/elle/on aura (he/she/one will have)
Nous aurons (we will have)
Vous aurez (you will have)
Ils/elles auront (they will have)
While these aren’t all the verb tenses, these are pretty common ones. Note that the same stems for the futur simple are used for the French conditional moods. There are also special conjugations for these two verbs in the subjunctive.
The irregular past participles été (être) and eu (avoir) are used in the passé composé (past perfect), and both verbs take avoir as an auxiliary verb for compound tenses.
This is all a lot to memorize, so keep in mind that what will really cement these conjugations in your mind is practice and exposure to them in some actual context. You can do this on FluentU, where the verbs will come to life in authentic French videos like movie clips, music videos, interviews and other native French content.
Plus, when you search for either verb in the FluentU program, you’ll see their different definitions as well as common phrases where they appear. Each of these definitions is an individual flashcard, so you can add them all to a flashcard deck and practice using them correctly in different contexts. Similarly, you can search for specific conjugations of the verbs for a more focused approach to studying them.
Flashcards on FluentU have example sentences and clips from FluentU videos where they appear, so you can see many different examples. Plus, you can practice flashcards with personalized quizzes that’ll learn your weaknesses and give you questions to target them. Hop on to the iOS or Android app and you can continue your learning with the addition of pronunciation practice thanks to speaking questions.
Now, take a look below at how to create the passé composé for all the other French verbs using these two verbs as auxiliaries.
Être vs. Avoir: When Should Each Be Used as an Auxiliary?
As previously stated, while these two verbs are very common, they have specific, rule-based usage outside of their standard “to be” and “to have” meanings. Because of this, there are situations where être must be used and others where avoir must be used, and no mixing is allowed.
For example, while both verbs are used as auxiliaries for compound verb tenses such as the passé composé, the rules for which one must be used are very rigid.
These two verbs also have very specific functions of their own outside of their auxiliary use, a few of which we’ll touch on later as well.
In compound verb tenses, both verbs come before the main verb (or the participle) and conjugate directly with the subject:
J’ai parlé. (I spoke.)
Nous sommes montés. (We climbed.)
The two examples above are in the passé composé.
When to Use Avoir as an Auxiliary Instead of Être
With the passé composé, almost all French verbs take avoir as an auxiliary, but there are a select few that take être. We’ll get into those below, but all you need to know about using avoir as an auxiliary is that it’s the default.
When to Use Être as an Auxiliary Instead of Avoir
Again, most verbs take avoir as an auxiliary in a compound tense.
Verbs that take être are referred to as the DR MRS VANDERTRAMP verbs. DR MRS VANDERTRAMP is an acronym to help learners remember which verbs take être as their auxiliary. These are also sometimes called the “verbs of the house” (les verbes de la maison).
Check them out:
Devenir (to become)
Revenir (to come back)
Monter (to climb)
Rester (to stay)
Sortir (to leave)
Venir (to come)
Aller (to go)
Naître (to be born)
Descendre (to descend)
Entrer (to enter)
Rentrer (to re-enter)
Tomber (to fall)
Retourner (to turn around)
Arriver (to arrive / to come)
Mourir (to die)
Partir (to leave)
In short, it’s said that these verbs must use être when there is no direct object and avoir when there is a direct object. More on this in a moment.
In addition to these verbs, reflexive verbs take être as their auxiliary (reflexive verbs have a se in their infinitive).
Here’s an example of a reflexive verb in the present and past tenses:
Je me réveille à 6 heures. (I wake up at 6 o’clock.)
Je me suis réveillé à 6 heures. (I woke up at 6 o’clock.)
You can see that the past tense conjugation uses être.
Also know that our two verbs can be used as auxiliaries for many other verb tenses such as le plus-que-parfait (pluperfect), le conditionel passé (past conditional) and le futur antérieur (the future perfect). These auxiliaries follow the same general rules as the auxiliary rules for the passé composé.
Here’s a quick look for comparison:
J’avais parlé. (I had spoken.)
J’aurais parlé. (I would have spoken.)
J’aurai parlé. (I will have spoken.)
Nous étions monté. (We had climbed.)
Nous serions monté. (We would have climbed.)
Nous serons monté. (We will have climbed.)
Agreement with Être
While it’s one thing to know when to use être and when to use avoir as an auxiliary, knowing how else être affects our sentence is another.
For starters, when we use être as an auxiliary, the past participle must agree with the gender and number of the subject. This means that an -e is added to past participles of feminine subjects and an -s is added to past participles of plural subjects. For subjects that are both feminine and plural, both -e and -s are added to the past participle:
Tu es allé à l’école. (You went to school.)
Elle est allée au magasin. (She went to the store.)
Nous sommes allés à la bibliothèque. (We went to the library.)
Elles sont allées aux toilettes. (They [feminine] went to the bathroom.)
Be careful, though! This agreement happens only with être and never with avoir.
Être and Avoir Auxiliaries with a Direct Object
Remember how we said that verbs take être when there is no direct object present? Well, what happens if a DR MRS VANDERTRAMP verb does have a direct object present?
In that case, the verb takes avoir as an auxiliary verb:
Je suis descendu. (I went down.)
J’ai descendu le livre. (I took the book downstairs.)
In this case, the first sentence uses être because there is no direct object, but in the second case, because le livre is following the verb, this DR MRS VANDERTRAMP has to take avoir as an auxiliary. Seems simple, right?
Well, what happens if a reflexive verb has a direct object? In a classic case of French rule exceptions, the auxiliary for these verbs will still be être, but no agreement will be made on the past participle.
La fille s’est brossée. (The girl brushed herself).
La fille s’est brossé les cheveux. (The girl brushed her hair.)
Specific Uses of Avoir
And just like that, we’re done with the compound tenses. Despite those being such a huge topic, it’s also useful to know that avoir is used in a number of idiomatic expressions, as long as we’re on the subject of usage. For example, avoir can be used to talk about age, hunger and thirst.
J’ai 16 ans. (I’m 16 years old.)
Il a faim. (He is hungry.)
Vous avez soif ? (Are you thirsty?)
Further, the fixed expression il y a means “there is/there are,” but it uses avoir.
Il y a un livre sur la table. (There is a book on the table.)
Il y a des policiers à l’école. (There are police at the school.)
Specific Uses of Être
As with avoir, there are specific uses and rules for être. For example, when être is used to talk about one’s profession, no article precedes the following noun.
Il est avocat. (He is a lawyer.)
Nous sommes étudiants. (We are students.)
Further, when être is used as a linking verb (followed by an adjective), the adjective that follows must agree in gender and in number with the subject. Like with the passé composé, an -e is added for feminine, an -s added for plural and an -es added for feminine, plural.
Je suis content. (I am happy.)
Elle est contente. (She is happy.)
Nous sommes contents. (We are happy.)
Elles sont contentes. (They [feminine] are happy.)
Keep in mind, however, that these are just simple adjectives. There are loads of other adjectives that don’t follow this rule, but change differently according to the gender and number of the subject.
Practicing Être and Avoir
Feel like you got a hold on when to use être and when to use avoir? Well, now you need some practice to keep it from being an uphill battle!
You can use the following resources to practice être and avoir:
Start with ToLearnFrench and ProProfs for a simple conjugation quiz of both verbs.
Next, try AllTheTests for an être-only quiz.
Lastly, try Lingolia for a quiz that combines the present tense and the passé composé.
Pretty soon, it’ll seem like the battle between être and avoir is no battle at all!
These two superverbs are used all the time, so it’s critical to know exactly when and how to use them.
And that knowledge will certainly come with time and practice, so keep up your diligent studies. After all, there are plenty of other French verbs to learn and master too!