When you learn French, one of the very first verbs you'll discover – and one of the most important – is the verb être (to be).
As a basic verb, it behaves just like its English counterpart.
But there are also a few other uses you need to be aware of.
If you want to learn even elementary French, you have to be able to use this verb.
So in this post, I want to look at être in detail to help you understand everything you need to know. By the time you've finished reading, you'll know the 3 main functions of this key French verb.
And you'll be ready to use it in real life, whether it's in conversation. Or spotting one of the uses in the French books you're reading.
So let's get into être.
Let’s start by looking at être in the present tense. Just like the English verb “to be”, être has a different form depending on who it refers to.
And, like the English equivalent, it’s irregular. That is, it doesn’t stick to the usual patterns that most verbs follow.
Here's how to conjugate it in the present tense:
Here are a few example sentences:
Like in English, être is used with professions, but note that the article (un, une – “a”) is not used:
Of course, there are lots of other forms of this verb in its different tenses. But you'll be able to look those up in any good grammar book. So I won’t give you a long list of verb tables here!
Other than its use as a verb meaning “to be”, être has a second very important use in French. And that is as the auxiliary verb in the formation of compound tenses.
Before I continue, let me just take a moment to remind you what a compound tense is.
In French, there are two types of tense, ‘simple tenses’ and ‘compound tenses’. Simple tenses are ones where the verb is just one word.
Compound tenses are ones that are formed with an auxiliary verb and the past participle. These include the perfect tense and the pluperfect tense among others.
Let’s take the French perfect tense as an example. The formation of this tense is very similar to the formation of the English present perfect tense – this is the “have done” form, for example “I have done my homework”.
In this tense, “have” is known as the “auxiliary verb” and “done” is the “past participle”. The French perfect tense is usually formed in the same way, for example:
J’ai acheté un stylo (I have bought a pen/I bought a pen)
As you can see, this tense is formed using the je form of avoir (to have) as the auxiliary verb plus the past participle, here with acheté (bought).
However, in French, sometimes we need to use être as the auxiliary verb instead of avoir – and when être is used as the auxiliary, it can also affect the behaviour of the past participle.
First, let’s think about when you need to use être as the auxiliary verb instead of avoir.
First, there's a group of verbs that always take être. They are mostly very common verbs and generally have something to do with movement or a change of state.
Since the list is quite short, the best thing to do is just to remember them.
Here’s the list:
For example, we say:
However, some of the words on this list have two meanings. And when they are used with the other meaning, they take avoir instead.
For example, when sortir is used to mean “to go out”, it takes être. But it can also mean “to take (something) out” – and when it is used like this, it takes avoir.
Some others that work like this include:
There’s another group of verbs that always take être as the auxiliary when forming compound tenses: reflexive verbs.
A reflexive verb is one where the subject of the sentence (i.e. the person or thing doing the action) does the action to itself. For example, in English, “I wash myself” is reflexive. In this sentence, “I” am doing the “washing” to myself.
Some verbs are always used reflexively. This is more common in French than in English. Often, where French uses a reflexive verb, English uses an expression with ‘get’.
Here are some examples:
Sometimes, non-reflexive verbs can be used reflexively to show that the person or thing is doing the action to itself.
Je me parle tout seul (I talk to myself)
In terms of this post, here’s the important point: when reflexive verbs are used in compound tenses, they also take être:
When forming compound tenses, verbs that take être – including the verbs in the être group and all reflexive verbs – behave in a special way.
With avoir verbs, the past participle usually doesn’t change. However, with être verbs, the past participle has to agree in number and gender with the subject of the sentence.
This probably sounds like a lot of grammatical jargon, so let’s try to unpick it.
In grammatical terms, the subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does the action. For example, in the sentence “I kicked the ball”, “I” is the subject because “I” refers to the person doing the kicking.
“Number” simply means whether something is singular (just one) or plural (more than one). This is the difference between “a dog”(singular) and “two dogs”, “three dogs”, “four dogs” etc. (plural).
“Gender” refers to whether something is masculine or feminine. In French, all nouns have a gender. Sometimes the gender is obvious – for example, un garçon (a boy) is masculine and une fille (a girl) is feminine.
However, sometimes it can seem rather arbitrary – un bureau (a desk) is masculine, but une table (a table) is feminine. Don’t ask why!
In French, past participles of verbs (and some other types of word) have masculine, feminine, singular and plural forms – “agreement” means making sure certain words in the sentence match with each other.
When a compound tense takes être as the auxiliary, the past participle needs to agree with the subject – that is, it needs to be masculine or feminine and singular or plural to match the subject.
This probably all sounds quite complicated and abstract, but don’t worry. Now we can have a look at some examples to make it all a bit clearer.
Take this sentence:
Il est allé (he went)
The subject, il, is masculine and singular, so here, we use the masculine singular form of the past participle: allé.
However, if we use elle instead of il, the past participle changes:
Elle est allée (she went)
This is because elle is feminine, so we need to use the feminine form of the past participle: allée.
Now look what happens if we use ils:
Ils sont allés (they went)
Because ils is masculine and plural, you need to use the masculine plural form of the past participle: allés.
Finally, look what happens with elles:
Elles sont allées (they (all female) went)
Because elles is feminine and plural, you need to use the feminine plural version of the past participle: allées.
Here are some more examples:
However, notice that in these examples, the pronunciation doesn’t change, only the spelling. This is the case most of the time – although not always.
The third use of être in French is to form the passive. The good news is it works in exactly the same way as in English.
The passive describes when an action happens to someone or something rather than when someone or something does the action themselves.
For example, take these two sentences in English:
In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the dog doing the biting – the dog does the action. This is an active sentence.
However, in the second sentence, the focus is more on the fact that the boy is ‘receiving’ the biting – the boy ‘receives’ the action. This is what you call a passive sentence. In English, you form passive sentences with the verb “to be” plus the past participle.
In French, it’s exactly the same. You form the passive using the verb être plus the past participle. So you can translate our 2 example sentences as:
Just like with the compound tenses, with the passive, the verb must agree in number and gender with the person or thing that is ‘receiving’ the action. So if you change le garçon to la fille, you get
Here’s one more example:
Les boissons sont préparées par l’hôtesse (the drinks are prepared by the hostess)
Because boissons is feminine and plural, you need to use the feminine plural form of the past participle: préparées.
One final point to note about the passive in French is that it is much less common than in English. French has a whole range of other ways to express ideas where English employs a passive construction.
To finish, let me just give you a couple of tips on the usage être that can sometimes catch beginners out.
Some sentences in English that use the verb “to be” are expressed differently in French. For example, in English, certain expressions like I’m hot/cold/hungry/thirsty are not expressed with être in French – they are expressed using avoir.
One other expression that might throw you at the beginning is il y a, meaning ‘”there is/there are”.
As you can see, the French expression uses a from the verb avoir – although here, I recommend just accepting il y a as a set expression meaning “there is/there are”, and not worry too much about the grammar.
Être meaning “to be” is easy enough to understand. But some of the other grammar related to this verb may seem a little complicated at first.
Être is one of the most common verbs in the French language. And one that you’ll need to master if you want to speak good French.
However, there’s no need to worry about it too much since, like most things, with practice, it will quickly become second nature.
As ever, the most important features of a language are the most common. So make sure that you're getting your daily dose of French listening, movie-viewing or reading so that difficult verbs like être start to sink in more quickly.
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Has this article clarified the uses of the verb être for you? Which other aspects of French grammar do you find tricky? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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