What matters is what follows
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, sauter, courir, marcher…” which use “avoir” (j’ai marché).
What really helps to understand why the verbs constructed with “être” do so, is to know they are all intransitive verbs: in their original meaning they cannot be followed by a direct object, but are followed in French by complement of place, time, manner… and this differs usually from English.
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For exemple, in English, you say “he exited the house”. We 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.
List of French verbs using “être” to form their compouned tenses
So that you can remember them better, I’ve listed commonly used prepositions after the verbs but please understand these are not the only prepositions that can be used. Try to memorize these exemples, or make exemples that are “closer” to your life, so you can remember them better. Don’t forget your prepositions!
Venir de : to come from
Elle est venue du Japon – she came from Japan
Arriver à, en, au… : to arrive
Ils sont arrivés au restaurant – they arrived to the restaurant
Monter sur: to climb up on
Je suis montée sur le mur – I climbed up on the wall
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
Rester dans, à…: to stay in
Tu es resté dans ta chambre – you stayed in your room
Sortir de: to exit – watch out since this one doesn’t use a preposition in English-
On est sortis de la voiture – we exited the car
Descendre de: to go down (downstairs) from, to climb down…
Nous sommes descendus de l’arbre – we climbed down from the tree
Tomber de, sur… – to fall from, on…
Vous êtes tombées de cheval – you fell from your horse
Partir à, en… – to leave for…
Il est parti en France – he left for France
Aller à, au, en, chez… – to go to, in…
Tu es allée à Paris – you went to Paris
Passer par – to go through a place
Nous sommes passés par Paris – we went through Paris
Retourner à, au, en – to back (again) to (more on this verb)
Il est retourné à la boulangerie – he went back again to the bakery
Naître à, au, en – To be born in
Je suis née à Paris – I was born in Paris
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 the “être” verbs?
A way to help memorizing these verbs is to imagine a hiker coming to a mountain with a house on top: being born in her village (naître), then coming to the mountain from her village (venir) , arriving to the mountain (arriver), climbing on it (monter), going through a cave (passer), then going to the house (aller), entering the house (entrer), staying in the house (rester), exiting the house (sortir), going down the mountain (descendre), falling (tomber)… but without dying (mourir), leaving the mountain (partir), returning to her village (rentrer)…
Another way to memorize these verbs is DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP:
Partir et Passer par
Now, don’t forget that all reflexive verbs also use “être”. See my French verb fundamentals French audio lesson to study lists of common reflexive verbs and learn more about French reflexive verbs.
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
- 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