French Auxiliary Verbs

Instructor: Rebecca Rosenbarker

Rebecca has taught French and English as a Second Language (ESL). She has a master's degree in ESL. Rebecca currently lives in France.

This lesson serves as an introduction to French auxiliary verbs. The two auxiliary verbs are introduced, as well as examined with examples in context. A short quiz to assess your understanding follows this lesson.

French Auxiliary Verbs

In French, when constructing compound tenses, such as the passé composé, you must use what are called auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, to create this compound tense. In French, there are two auxiliary verbs. They are être (eh-truh), which means 'to be,' and avoir (ah-vwar), which means 'to have.'

To form the compound tense, you first conjugate the appropriate auxiliary verb (either être or avoir) in the present tense, then place the past participle of the verb after the conjugated auxiliary verb.

Before discussing when to use which auxiliary verb, let's briefly look at the conjugations of both être and avoir in the present tense.

Subject Pronoun Être Conjugation Pronunciation Translation
Je suis juh swee I am
Tu es tu ay You are (singular)
Il/Elle/On est eel/ehl/ohn ay He/She/One is
Nous sommes noo sohm We are
Vous êtes voo zet You are (formal/plural)
Ils/Elles sont eel/ehl sohn They are

Subject Pronoun Avoir Conjugation Pronunciation Translation
J' ai jay I have
Tu as tu ah You have (singular)
Il/Elle/On a eel/ehl/ohn ah He/She/One has
Nous avons noo zavohn We have
Vous avez voo zavay You have (formal/plural)
Ils/Elles ont eel/ehl zohn They have

Now that we've looked at the conjugations of each auxiliary verb, let's discuss the specific instances when you need to use which one.

When to Use Être

Être is used as the auxiliary verb in French for 17 very specific verbs. They are as follows:

Verb Definition
aller To go
arriver To arrive
descendre To go down
devenir To become
entrer To enter
monter To go up
mourir To die
naître To be born
passer To pass
partir To leave
rentrer To re-enter
rester To stay
retourner To return
revenir To come back
sortir To go out
tomber To fall
venir To come

Here are some examples of être being used as an auxiliary verb in context. Let's take a conversation between Marc and Christelle, two friends discussing a party that happened last weekend.

The girls enjoyed themselves at the party.

Marc: Je suis arrivé vers 21h. (I arrived around 9:00pm.)

Christelle: Oui, et tu es venu avec Pierre. (Yes, and you came with Pierre.)

Marc: Il est entré dans la cuisine pour parler avec Cédric. (He entered into the kitchen to talk with Cedric.)

Christelle: Vous n'êtes pas resté longtemps. (You both didn't stay long).

In these examples above, we can see the auxiliary verb être conjugated based on the subject pronoun, and placed before the past participle.

Additionally, être is used as the auxiliary verb in the the case of pronominal (also known as reflexive) verbs- meaning where the subject performs the action on him or herself. From our example above, Marc and Christelle continue discussing the party. Marc asked Christelle why she was late, and now she is explaining why.

Christelle: Je me suis brossée les dents, je me suis douchée, tout ça prend du temps! (I brushed my teeth, I took a shower, all of that takes time!)

Marc: Tu t'es habillée combine de fois? (How many times did you get dressed?)

Cédric: Oui, on t'attendait! (Yeah, we were waiting for you?)

Christelle: Pourquoi vous vous êtes fâchés? Je vous ai pas retardé. (Why are you two mad? I didn't hold you up.)

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