How to Conjugate The French Verbs Etre and Avoir

For those who are beginning their French journey or just need a refresher, the verbs avoir and être are probably the two most important verbs in the entire French language. Understanding these two verbs is a huge first step to speaking and understanding the French language.

At their most basic level the verb avoir means to have while the verb être means to be.

Avoir & Etre
AvoirTo Have
EtreTo Be

 

The French Verb Avoir

Let’s start by conjugating the verb avoir in the present tense so we can start to get an idea of how to use it in a sentence.

If you are unaware of exactly what conjugating means it is best explained with a side by side comparison.

To Have
I have
You have
He/She/It has
We have
You have (plural)
They have

As you can see you have what is known as the infinitive (To Have) which changes depending on what you put in front of it (I, you, he, we, etc…) Although in English it doesn’t change that much (only when you put he, she or it in front of it) French is a little more complicated. As we already know, the French equivalent of “to have” is avoir. Here is how avoir is conjugated in the present tense. 

Avoir
J'ai
Tu as
Il/elle/on a
Nous avons
Vous avez
Ils/elles ont

Although it may not look like it the bottom chart is the French version of the top one that is in English. As you can see the French version avoir changes a lot more than the English version “to have”, but the idea between them remains the same. Side-by-side they look like the following…

Avoir - To Have
J'aiI have
Tu asYou have
Il a / Elle a / On aHe has / She has / We have
Nous avonsWe have
Vous avezYou have (plural)
Ils ont / Elles ontThey have

 

Let’s look at some examples of the verb avoir in action…

 

  • J’ai une voiture – I have a car
  • Il a une bouteille – He has a bottle
  • Nous avons une feuille de papier – We have a piece of paper
  • Tu as une soeur – You have a sister
  • Ils ont un chien – They have a dog

 

Avoir as an Auxiliary Verb

The last part of the verb avoir that we are going to talk about is how to use it as an auxiliary verb. In case you don’t know, an auxiliary verb is a verb that doesn’t have any real meaning by itself, but rather helps change the meaning of another verb.

Some people refer to auxiliary verbs as helping verbs. Fortunately for us the verb “to have” is also often used as an auxiliary verb in English so this concept shouldn’t be too difficult to understand. Let’s look at some examples to better explain this.

 

  • I have seen that movie three times
  • You have visited France
  • She has cleaned her room 

 

Do you see how in each of these sentences the verb (to have) exists, but yet doesn’t have the same meaning as in the sentence “I have a ball”. In this sentence we picture ourselves, holding, owning or possessing an object (in this case a ball), however in the above sentences the verb (to have) doesn’t have this meaning at all. It simply is there to help out the verb next to it (seen, visited, cleaned) and place it in what’s know as the present perfect tense. Let’s now take a look at these same sentences in French.

 

  • J’ai vu ce film trois frois
  • Tu as visité la France
  • Elle a rangé sa chambre

 

Just like in English the verb to have (avoir) doesn’t have it’s typical meaning, but rather just helps to change the meaning of the verb next to it. In the French examples the verbs are in the passé composé.

 

The French Verb Etre

Since we already know what conjugating is and how it works, let’s just take a look at a side-by-side comparison between how to conjugate the English verb to be and its French counterpart être

To BeEtre
I amJe suis
You areTu es
He/She/It isIl/elle est
We areNous sommes
You are (plural)Vous êtes
Ils/elles sontThey are

Let’s look at some examples of this verb in action…

 

  • Je suis français – I am French
  • Nous sommes contents – We are happy
  • Il est intelligent – He is smart

 

Once you have a good handle on the information contained in the chart above then using the verb être in a sentence becomes a piece of cake.

 

Etre as an Auxiliary Verb

Just like with the verb avoir, the verb être is used as an auxiliary verb when it is placed in various tenses. This is a little difficult for English speakers to understand because when translating sentences with être as an auxiliary from French to English things get a little funky.  

We first should note that the vast majority of French verbs use the auxiliary verb avoir and only a handful actually use être. Despite this, the verbs that use être are some of the most commonly-used in the language.

Here is the list of French verbs that use être. You can also learn more by checking out our article on Dr Mrs P. Vandertramp or the Passé Composé.

French Verbs that Use Etre as an Auxiliary Verb
DevenirTo BecomeDescendreTo Descend
RevenirTo Come BackEntrerTo Enter
MonterTo ClimbRentrerTo Re-enter
ResterTo StayTomberTo Fall
SortirTo LeaveRetournerTo Turn Around
VenirTo ComeArriverTo Arrive
AllerTo GoMourirTo Die
NaîtreTo Be BornPartirTo Leave

Let’s put some of these verbs into practice.. All of these verbs are conjugated using the passé composé because the verb être is placed in the present. This is probably the easiest way to explain it to beginners.

 

Je suis arrivé en France – I (have) arrived in France

Il est venu me voir – He (has) came to see me

Tu es resté chez toi – You (have) stayed at home

Ils sont morts en janvier – They (have) died in January

 

Etre with Reflexive Verbs

One thing that we won’t go into too much detail about, but is important to know is that although the above list contains the verbs that use être as an auxiliary verb, reflexive verbs also use être. Reflexive verbs are simply verbs that are done to oneself as opposed to something or someone else. You can recognize reflexive verbs because they have have one of the following words in front of them…

Reflexive Pronouns
MeMyself
TeYourself
SeHimself, Herself
NousOurselves
VousYourselves
SeThemselves

Here are some examples of reflexive verbs in action in compared to their counterparts that aren’t reflexive..

 

J’ai lavé la voiture – I washed the car – Correct

Je me suis lavé les mains – I washed my hands – Correct

Je m’ai lavé les mains – I washed my hands – Wrong

 

Il a réveillé les voisins – I woke up the neighbors – Correct

Il s’est réveillé – I woke up (myself) – Correct

Il s’a réveillé – I woke up (myself) – Wrong

 

Hopefully this guide has helped you to get an idea of the importance of both the French verbs avoir and être and exactly how to use them in basic French sentences. What other uses of these verbs do you know of? Comment below and give us some examples!

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