October 30, 2023

To Be or To Have?

Have you recently learned a great French verb tense called "passé composé" ? This is a really important milestone in your French learning process as you will absolutely need this verb tense to express yourself in the past.

While learning or reviewing "le passé composé", you will inevitably be struggling when having to choose between the helping verbs avoir and être. It is a good idea to spend a bit of time on this topic as the same struggle will come back when you will start learning more complex verb tenses such as "plus-que-parfait", "conditionnel passé" et "subjonctif passé".

So, let's roll up our sleeves and delve into this Mission Possible!

Here are 5 Great Tips To Help You Choose Between "Auxiliaires Avoir & Être"!

1. Auxiliaire, j'ai besoin d'aide!

An auxiliary verb, or helping verb, is a conjugated verb used in front of another verb in compound tenses in order to indicate the mood and tense of the verb.

In French, the auxiliary verb is either avoir or être. All French verbs are classified by which auxiliary verb they take, and they use the same auxiliary verb in all compound tenses. Most French verbs use avoir, fewer use être.

2. Avoir

The French irregular verb avoir is the most frequently used verbs of all French verbs.


Passé composé


j'ai eu

tu as

tu as eu

il a

il a eu

nous avons

nous avons eu

vous avez

vous avez eu

ils ont
ils ont eu
The helping verb "avoir" is usually used with action verbs such as manger, parler, écrire, habiter, aimer, etc.

2. Être

The French irregular verb être is the second most frequently used verbs of all French verbs.

**Attention!** "Être" is conjugated with the helping verb "avoir" in "passé composé"!


Passé composé

je suis

j'ai été

tu es

tu as été

il est

il a été

nous sommes

nous avons été

vous êtes

vous avez été

ils sont
ils ont été

The helping verb "être" is usually used with verbs representing movement (aller, venir), transformation (devenir) or absence of all of these (rester).

3. Dr. & Mrs. Van Der Tramp

Here is "un petit truc mnémotechnique" to help you remember which verbs are always paired with auxiliary "être" in French:





4. Intransitive Verbs

One very important thing to remember is that verbs only use être when they are intransitive (i.e, they do not have a direct object):

  • Je suis passé à huit heures (I came by around 8 PM)  
    J'ai passé la maison (I stopped by the house, direct object = la maison).
  • Je suis monté avant lui (I went upstairs before him)
    J'ai monté la valise (I brought the suitcase upstairds, direct object = la valise).

5. Les recettes de grammaire de Marine

I invite you to watch Prêt à Parler's Super Prof Marine further explain how to choose between "avoir & être au passé composé" in her special grammar recipes!

I hope you are now even more confident to express yourself in the past in French using "les auxiliaires avoir et être"!


As a native Québécoise, born to a Franco-Belgian family, now living in Nyon with her two children, Isabelle is no stranger to the expat reality! Trained as a professional opera singer, her passion for arts and languages led her to become an ambassador of the French language & francophone culture, i.e. a French Teacher!

She founded Prêt à Parler in January 2015. Since then she's been hard at work helping native and non-native English-speaking expats make French part of their everyday life! Prêt à Parler's mission is based on what Isabelle does best: helping busy professionals and parents improve their French language skills by providing a high quality, eco-friendly, fun, no-nonsense approach to learning French online!

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