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Most verbs in French use "avoir" to form compound tenses such as passé-composé, plus-que-parfait, futur-antérieur etc... But some verbs use "être". In this lesson, I'm going to point out mnemotechnic ways to memorize them, but mostly I am offering you a deeper understanding of the logic behind this grammatical behavior. Once you understand why a verb uses "avoir" or "être", it's much easier to remember.

Not All Verbs of Movement Use Être In Passé Composé

Many methods will tell you this: verbs that use “être” are verbs of movement.

It’s true, but I don’t think this is very helpful, since many verbs of movements do not use “être”, such as “danser (to dance), sauter (to jump), courir (to run), marcher (to walk) etc…” which use “avoir”.
J’ai dansé, j’ai sauté, j’ai couru, j’ai marché…

Être or Avoir in Passé Composé: What Matters is What Follows

What really helps to understand why the verbs constructed with “être” do so, is to know they are all intransitive verbs in French: in their original meaning they cannot be followed by a direct object.

In French, they are followed by complement of place, time, manner… and this differs usually from English.

For example, in English, you say “he exited the house“.
He exited what? = the house. The house is a direct object.

In French, “il est sorti de la maison”.
Il est sorti DE quoi ? = de la maison. La maison is a complement of place.

Now that you know this, you’ll understand why when you memorize these words, you should memorize the prepositions that come with them as well.

Most of these verbs can be followed by all prepositions of place: à, au, aux, en, sur, chez, en bas….

Remember that when you use “être”, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject:
Elles sont entrées dans la maison = they came inside the house.

All Reflexive Verbs Use “Etre” in Passé Composé

This is quite important as well. All the verbs used in a reflexive form (the “se” form) use être :

  1. J’ai habillé la poupée : I dressed the doll (not reflexive)
  2. Je me suis habillée : I got dressed (reflexive)

To understand how to use a verb in the reflexive form, I invite you to read my blog article “French pronominal verbs“.

List of French verbs using “être” to form their compound tenses

The following verbs (+ verbs in the reflexive form) use être for their compound tenses: passé-composé, but also plus-que-parfait, futur antérieur etc…

So that you can remember these “être” verbs better, I’ve listed commonly used prepositions after the verbs.

Please understand these are not the only prepositions that can be used, just pointers.

Try to memorize these examples, or make examples that are “closer” to your life, so you can remember them better. Don’t forget your prepositions!

  1. Venir de : to come from
    Elle est venue du Japon – she came from Japan
  2. Arriver à, en, au… : to arrive
    Ils sont arrivés au restaurant – they arrived to the restaurant
  3. Monter sur: to climb up on
    Je suis montée sur le mur – I climbed up on the wall
  4. Entrer dans: to enter – watch out since this one doesn’t use a preposition in English
    Il est entré dans la maison – he entered the house
  5. Rester dans, à…: to stay in
    Tu es resté dans ta chambre – you stayed in your room
  6. Sortir de: to exit –  watch out since this one doesn’t use a preposition in English-
    On est sortis de l’hôtel – we exited the hotel
  7. Descendre de: to go down (downstairs) from, to climb down…
    Nous sommes descendus de l’arbre – we climbed down from the tree
  8. Tomber de, sur… – to fall from, on…
    Vous êtes tombées de cheval – you fell from your horse
  9. Partir à, en… – to leave for…
    Il est parti en France – he left for France
  10. Aller à, au, en, chez… – to go to, in…
    Tu es allée à Paris – you went to Paris
  11. Passer par – to go through a place
    Nous sommes passés par Paris – we went through Paris
  12. Retourner à, au, en, Rentrer chez – to back (again) to / (more on retourner ≠ rentrer)
    Il est retourné à la boulangerie – he went back again to the bakery
  13. Naître à, au, en – To be born in
    Je suis née à Paris – I was born in Paris
  14. Mourir à, au, en… – To die in
    Elle est morte chez elle – she died in her home

+ all the verbs built on these verbs also use être: rentrer, devenir, revenir, repartir…

How to Memorize which French Verbs Use “Être”?

1 – Mnemotechnic methods to chose between être and avoir: the hiker

A way to help memorizing these verbs is to imagine a hiker coming to a mountain with a house on top:

  1. Being born in the village (elle est née dans le village)
  2. then coming here (elle est venue ici) ,
  3. passing pretty flowers (elle est passée à côté de ces jolies fleurs),
  4. reaching the bottom of the mountain (elle est arrivée en bas de la montagne),
  5. climbing on top of the mountain (elle est montée en haut de la montagne),
  6. then going towards the house (elle est allée vers la maison),
  7. entering the house (elle est entrée dans la maison),
  8. staying in the house a bit (elle est restée un peu dans la maison),
  9. then exiting the house (et puis elle est sortie de la maison),
  10. going down the mountain (elle est descendue de la montagne),
  11. falling (elle est tombée)…
  12. but thankfully without dying (mais heureusement, elle n’est pas morte),
  13. leaving the mountain (elle est partie de la montagne),
  14. returning to her village (elle est rentrée dans son village)…

2 – French Verbs Taking “Etre” in Passé Composé Video

My daughter Leyla did a short and fun video to illustrate this idea using the popular video game Minecraft! Enjoy!
(Please press “like” and share it to encourage her to do more! – She’s 11, it will mean a lot to her!)

If you enjoyed this video, make sure you subscribe to French Today’s YouTube Channel so you never miss a video! Leyla has made several ones using Minecraft!

3 – Mnemotechnic methods to chose between être and avoir:

DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP

Another way to memorize these verbs is DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP:
Devenir
Revenir
&
Monter
Rester
Sortir

Venir
Aller
Naître
Descendre
Entrer
Rentrer
Tomber
Retourner
Arriver
Mourir
Partir et Passer par

Now, don’t forget that all reflexive verbs also use “être”.
Je me suis lavée – (se laver) I washed myself.

I believe the mnemotechnic methods listed above to be useful for an exam, but not when you speak. To make the right choice when speaking, you need to develop habits, reflexes, and the best way is to get accustomed to hearing these verb forms used properly: use my French audio books to study “être” and “avoir” verbs in the context of a story.

“Être” is the Verb of the Subject, “Avoir” of the Direct Object

Now let’s go a bit deeper into grammar. I like to tell my students that “être” is the verb of the subject, and “avoir” the verb of the direct object. “Être” is “allergic” to direct object: see what happens now…

Many of the verbs above can be used in an “idiomatic” way, with a meaning which is twisted from their original meaning.

To say to take something down, in, out, up… we also use these verbs:

  • Descendre la poubelle: to take the garbage downstairs
  • Monter la valise: to take the suitcase upstairs
  • Sortir les chiens: to take the dogs out
  • Rentrer la voiture: to put the car inside the garage

Also

  • Passer + time = to spend + time

So now, you are going to have a direct object: la poubelle, la valise… Can you guess which verb you’ll use to make passé composé? “Avoir”, that’s right!

When “Être” Verbs Use “Avoir”

  • J’ai descendu le sac: I took the bag downstairs
  • J’ai monté l’escalier: I went up the stairs
  • J’ai sorti la voiture: I took the car outside
  • J’ai rentré les jouets: I took the toys inside
  • J’ai passé le weekend à Paris: I spent the weekend in Paris

Note: there are many idiomatic meanings of these verbs + direct object:

  • Descendre quelqu’un: to diss someone, also to kill someone
  • Monter + something: to build something up,
  • Recently a popular song said “tomber la chemise” to say to remove one’s shirt…

Reflexive Verbs + Direct Object

Some reflexive verbs can be used by a direct object, in particular part of the body.

In this case, you will still use “être”, but there will be no agreement: not with the subject, not with the direct object…

  • Camille s’est lavé les mains – Camille washed her hands.

Note also that we say “she washed (herself) THE hands”, not as in English “she washed HER hands”, we use a definite article, not a possessive adjective.

I suggest you also read my article about the differences between passé-composé and imparfait.

You may also be interested in my article about the subjunctive.

The best way to truly understand French grammar is to learn French in context: check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation. 

You’ll find exclusive mini lessons, tips, pictures and more daily on French Today’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!


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Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 20 years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Most of my audiobooks are recorded at several speeds to help you conquer the modern French language. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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