french-to-be

To Be or Not to Be? The Simple Guide to Conjugating and Using the French “To Be”

To be, or not to be. That is the question.” –“Hamlet”

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –“Casablanca”

We’re the three best friends that anybody could have!” –“The Hangover”

The verb “to be” is everywhere, in one form or another.

When learning French, the verb “to be,” or être, is one of the first verbs you should memorize and learn how to conjugate.

You’ll use it constantly!

There are about a thousand ways to use the French “to be.”

But let’s cover the basics before anything else.
 


 

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What to Know About the French “To Be”

The infinitive form is être.

The verb être literally translates to “to be.”

There are times when you’ll use the infinitive form of this verb, just as you’d occasionally use “to be” in English. But for the most part, you’ll be conjugating être to match the subject in your sentence.

It’s an irregular verb.

In French, you have regular -er, -ir and -re verbs. It can be much easier to memorize the conjugations for these types of verbs because they all follow the same rules.

Then there are the irregular verbs—verbs like avoir (to have), aller (to go) and—yep, you guessed it—être.

There are no hard and fast rules for conjugating an irregular verb. You just have to memorize how to do it. I know, I know, this is annoying. But être is one of the most common verbs in the French language, so the time you spend memorizing and practicing will be worth it!

It’s an auxiliary verb.

In French, there are two auxiliary verbs, which you may think of as “helping verbs”: avoir (to have) and être.

You’ll use one of these two auxiliary verbs when using the past participle, or passé composé, and almost every other non-present tense verb. More often than not, you’ll use avoir, but you’ll use être primarily for 16 specific verbs.

In English, you may say “I went.” But in French, you’d say je suis allé, which looks like “I am gone.” Yes, it’s confusing at first but after a little practice, you won’t think twice about it.

We won’t cover how to use être as an auxiliary verb in-depth in this post. If you want to learn more about that, take a look at this FluentU post.

Remember the multiple uses for on, vous and ils.

This is something to remember when conjugating any verb, not just être. But it’s worth mentioning so that you don’t become confused as you read this post.

When do we use on? There are two instances. First, you can use on as an informal substitute for nous. Instead of saying nous sommes beaux (we are handsome), you may say to a family member or close friend, on est beaux (we are handsome).

On is also how you’d say “one,” as in, “When one is in France, one speaks French.”

Remember that vous also has two purposes. It can be the plural form of “you,” as in “You all should come to the party tonight.” Or, it can be the formal form of “you,” as in “Sir, do you like the food?”

Ils is also a little tricky. You probably think of using ils (they) to talk about multiple men or male nouns, and elles (they) to talk about multiple women or female nouns. However, you should remember to use ils if the group you’re talking about is co-ed.

Instances When You’d Use the French “To Be”

As you might guess, you’ll often use être to talk about a state of being. For example:

Nous sommes sœurs. (We are sisters.)

Es-tu à Nashville? (Are you in Nashville?)

Je suis américain. (I am American.)

Use être in conjunction with the preposition à (to) if you want to indicate that something belongs to someone.

Ce lit est à moi, et le lit là-bas est à mon frère. (This bed is mine, and the bed over there is my brother’s.)

Finally, you can also use the verb when referring to a profession. In this case, you drop the article (un/une or le/la) before the profession. Take a look:

Je ne suis pas étudiant. (I am not a student.)

Ma mère était médecin. (My mother was a doctor.)

french-to-be

Is all of this starting to feel overwhelming? FluentU can help you memorize everything you need to know about the French “to be,” as well as numerous other verbs.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like TV commercials, celebrity interviews and music videos—and turns them into French language-learning lessons. By watching authentic videos, you can hear how to use être in a variety of real contexts.

Each FluentU video features annotated subtitles. Hover over a French word to see the definition, part of speech and an associated image. By hovering over a conjugated form of être, you’ll be able to see exactly why it’s being used in a certain way.

Access the full FluentU video library on your web browser or, better yet, learn on the go when you download the app for your iOS or Android device.

To Be or Not to Be? The Simple Guide to Conjugating and Using the French “To Be”

Present

This is the most basic way to conjugate être. Once you memorize how to conjugate and use the verb in the present tense, you can move on to other tenses.

Je suis (I am)

Je suis une femme. (I am a woman.)

Tu es (You are)

Tu es très beau. (You are very handsome.)

Il/elle/on est (He/she/one is)

Il est étudiant. (He is a student.)

Elle est mère de deux enfants adorables. (She is a mother of two adorable children.)

Quand on est en France, on parle francais. (When one is in France, one speaks French.)

Nous sommes (We are)

Nous sommes heureux. (We are happy.)

Vous êtes (You are, formal/You all are)

Madame, vous êtes une bonne professeure. (Ma’am, you are a good teacher.)

Ils/elles sont (They are)

Ils sont tristes. (They are sad.)

Elles sont amies. (They are friends.)

Imparfait (Imperfect)

L’imparfait is one way to talk about the past. You use the imparfait in four main situations:

  • When talking about actions that took place over a period of time/had no clear end time
  • Conditions to set up a scene
  • Repeated/habitual actions
  • Physical descriptions

Here’s how to conjugate and use “to be” when using l’imparfait:

J’étais (I was)

Quand j’habitais en Suisse, j’étais seule. (When I lived in Switzerland, I was lonely.)

Tu étais (You were)

Étais-tu grand quand tu étais jeune? (Were you tall when you were young?)

Il/elle/on était (He/she/one was)

Le ciel était bleu et le soleil brillait le jour de Noël. (The sky was blue and the sun was shining on Christmas day.)

Ma mère était infirmière avant de se marier. (My mom was a nurse before she got married.)

On était contents de voir la Tour Eiffel pour la première fois. (We were happy to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time.)

Nous étions (We were)

Quand nous étions jeunes, notre père était professeur. (When we were young, our father was a teacher.)

Vous étiez (You were, formal/You all were)

Étiez-vous tristes après la mort de votre grand-mère? (Were you sad after the death of your grandmother?)

Ils/elles étaient (They were)

Ses cheveux étaient bouclés. (His hair was curly.)

Mes filles étaient très petites quand elles étaient enfants. (My daughters were very small when they were children.)

Passé Composé (Past Participle)

The passé composé is the other way to talk about events in the past tense, but it refers to clearly completed actions, including the present perfect. If you aren’t talking about one of the four times we use imparfait, you’ll probably use passé composé.

Use the present tense of avoir (to have) as a helping verb, then été.

J’ai été (I was/have been)

J’ai été à New York. (I was/have been in New York.)

Tu as été (You were)

As-tu été en France? (Have you been to France?)

Il/elle/on a été (He/she/one was)

Il a été très triste. (He was very sad.)

Elle n’a pas été une bonne avocate. (She has not been not a good lawyer.)

On a été inquiet hier soir. (We were worried last night.)

Nous avons été (We were)

Nous avons été en retard mercredi. (We were late on Wednesday.)

Vous avez été (You were, formal/You all were)

Vous avez été gentils avec moi. (You all were/have been kind to me.)

Ils/elles ont été (They were)

Ils n’ont pas été stupides! (They were not stupid!)

Les filles ont été amicales. (The girls were/have been friendly.)

Le Futur Simple (Simple Future)

To talk about things that will happen in the future, use the stem ser-.

Je serai (I will be)

Je serai bientôt divorcé. (I will be divorced soon.)

Tu seras (You will be)

Est-ce que tu seras au lycée l’année prochaine? (Will you be in high school next year?)

Il/elle/on sera (He/she/one will be)

Il sera au musée à 11h00. (He will be at the museum at 11:00.)

Elle sera contente un jour. (She will be happy someday.)

On sera là! (We will be there!)

Nous serons (We will be)

Nous serons en retard! (We will be late!)

Vous serez (You will be, formal/You all will be)

Quand serez-vous mariée? (When will you be married?)

Ils/elles seront (They will be)

Ils seront ici demain. (They will be here tomorrow.)

Je pense qu’elles seront OK. (I think they will be okay.)

Le Futur Antérieur (Future Perfect)

Use the future perfect conjugation of être to talk about something that will have happened once something else occurs. For example, “By the time I graduate, I will have been in school for four years.”

Use the future simple conjugation of avoir (to have), then été.

J’aurai été (I will have been)

Quand je prendrai ma retraite, j’aurai été prof pendant 40 ans. (When I retire, I will have been a teacher for 40 years.)

Tu auras été (You will have been)

Tu auras été marié pendant 10 ans en avril. (You will have been married 10 years in April.)

Il/elle/on aura été (He/she/one will have been)

Il aura été en France pendant six mois. (He will have been in France for six months.)

Elle aura été écrivain pendant longtemps. (She will have been a writer for a long time.)

Demain, on aura été a New York pendant deux semaines. (Tomorrow, we will have been in New York for two weeks.)

Nous aurons été (We will have been)

L’annee prochaine, nous aurons été amis pendant 20 ans! (Next year, we will have been friends for 20 years!)

Vous aurez été (You will have been, formal/You all will have been)

Madame, dans une semaine vous aurez été ma patronne pendant trois mois. (Ma’am, in a week you will have been my boss for three months.)

Ils/elles auront été (They will have been)

À midi, ils auront été endormis pendant 10 heures. (At noon, they will have been asleep for 10 hours.)

Elles auront été belles-sœurs pendant deux ans. (They will have been sisters-in-law for two years.)

Le Conditionnel (Conditional)

Use the conditional form of être to form “If… then” sentences. You’ll use the conditional form of the verb for the “would” part of the sentence and the imperfect form for the “if.”

Je serais (I would be)

Je serais mince si je faisais du jogging. (I would be thin if I jogged.)

Tu serais (You would be)

Si tu étudiais, tu serais plus fort en maths. (If you studied, you would be better at math.)

Il/elle/on serait (He/she/one would be)

Si tu lui disais ça, il serait fâché. (If you told him that, he would be angry.)

Elle serait heureuse si elle avait un travail plus intéressant. (She would be happy if she had a more interesting job.)

Si on mangeait des légumes, on serait en bonne santé. (If we ate vegetables, we would be healthy.)

Nous serions (We would be)

Nous serions contents si nous nous parlions plus souvent. (We would be happy if we talked to each other more often.)

Vous seriez (You would be, formal/You all would be)

Monsieur, je crois que vous seriez célèbre si vous aviez un représentant. (Sir, I believe you would be famous if you had an agent.)

Ils/elles seraient (They would be)

Ils seraient mariés s’il lui demandait en mariage. (They would be married if he proposed to her.)

Elles seraient mères si elles le voulaient. (They would be mothers if they wanted to be.)

Le Subjonctif (Subjunctive)

Use the subjunctive either to express a feeling or to talk about something that is uncertain. You also use it after certain words/phrases, such as il faut que… (it’s necessary that…).

Je sois (I be)

Il faut que je sois gentil. (It’s necessary that I be kind.)

Tu sois (You be)

Il est important que tu sois à la fête. (It is important that you be at the party.)

Il/elle/on soit (He/she/one be)

Nous voulons qu’il soit heureux. (We want him to be happy.)

 Ses parents aimeraient qu’elle soit danseuse. (Her parents would like her to be a dancer.)

Il faut qu’on soit humble. (It’s necessary for one to be humble.)

Nous soyons (We be)

Je voudrais que nous soyons en France le 14 juillet. (I would like us to be in France on July 14th.)

Vous soyez (You be, formal/You all be)

Il est essentiel que vous soyez à l’école vers 7h30. (It’s essential that you all be at school around 7:30.)

Ils/elles soient (They be)

Nous exigeons qu’ils soient ici bientôt. (We demand that they be here soon.)

Je préfère qu’elles soient présentes pour cette réunion. (I prefer that they be present for that meeting.)

Plus que Parfait (Pluperfect)

When you see the sentence structure using “pendant… quand” (for a certain amount of time… when), that probably means it’s time to use the pluperfect. A common sentence structure would be “I had been such-and-such for such an amount of time when such-and-such happened.”

Use the imparfait conjugation of avoir (to have), then été.

J’avais été (I had been)

J’avais été sans emploi pendant un an quand j’ai trouvé ce travail. (I had been unemployed for a year when I found this job.)

Tu avais été (You had been)

Tu avais été à l’hôpital pendant une semaine quand ma mère est allée te rendre visite. (You had been in the hospital for a week when my mom went to visit you.)

Il/elle/on avait été (He/she/one had been)

Il avait été au travail pendant six heures quand il a pris une pause-déjeuner. (He had been at work for six hours when he took a lunch break.)

Brigitte avait été en train d’accoucher pendant 20 heures quand le bébé est enfin arrivé. (Brigitte had been in labor for 20 hours when the baby finally arrived.)

On avait été correspondants pendant longtemps quand on s’est rencontrés. (We had been pen pals for a long time when we met.)

Nous avions été (We had been)

Nous avions été serveurs pendant deux ans quand nous avons démissionné. (We had been servers for two years when we quit.)

Vous aviez été (You had been, formal/You all had been)

Vous aviez été professeur de français pendant 10 ans quand vous avez reçu le prix d’excellence en enseignement. (You had been a French teacher for 10 years when you received the teaching award.)

Ils/elles avaient été (They had been)

Ils avaient été mariés pendant trois ans quand ils ont eu un bébé. (They had been married for three years when they had a baby.)

Elles avaient été étudiantes pendant longtemps avant de se rencontrer. (They had been students for a long time before they met.)

 

You just learned a lot about how to use the French “to be!” Don’t be overwhelmed—it just takes a little time and practice.
 

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