When to use avoir and when to use être

This article will explain when to use avoir and when to use être to form the perfect tense.

For the majority of verbs, avoir is used to form the perfect tense, so that the translation is sometimes word for word in English:

il a mangé trop de frites
he has eaten too many chips
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However, être is used in some cases. For example:

il est tombé dans le lac
he has fallen into the lake
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Whether you use avoir or être basically depends on the main verb. In the above examples, manger, like most verbs, uses avoir. But tomber is a special verb that uses être instead. The verbs that use être are:

  • all reflexive verbs;
  • a handful of common 'movement' verbs such as arriver and partir whenever they are used intransitively (see below for what that means);
  • a handful of verbs (most of them not very common), some of the time.

We will look at these categories in turn.

Reflexive verbs

By reflexive verbs, we mean verbs like s'habiller and s'appeler that have the pronoun se (or s') before them in the infinitive, and generally have a meaning of 'to ... oneself', 'to ... each other'. (For more information, see the separate section on reflexive verbs.) All of these verbs have their perfect tense formed with être. Remembering that être goes je suis, tu es, il est etc, and that s'habiller in the present tense would go je m'habille, tu t'habilles, il s'habille etc, this is how s'habiller goes in the perfect tense:

je me suis habillé
I got dressed
tu t'es habillé
you got dressed
il s'est habillé
he got dressed
elle s'est habillée
she got dressed
ils se sont habillés
they got dressed
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See below for details of why the past participle habillé changes its form with elle and ils.

Common verbs that need être

Then, there are a few other common verbs that form their perfect tense with être. They are:

  • aller (to go) and venir (to come)
  • arriver (to come, arrive; to happen) and partir (to leave, depart)
  • entrer (to enter, come/go in) and sortir (to leave, come/go out)
  • descendre (to come/go down) and-- USUALLY!-- monter (to come/go up). See below for why I say "usually".
  • naître (to be born), mourir (to die) and décéder (to die)
  • retourner (to return, go back) and rentrer (to go/come back, go/come home)
  • rester (to stay, remain)
  • tomber (to fall)
  • devenir (to become)

As you'll see, the list isn't too bad to remember because (a) they're common verbs, so you'll hopefully hear and use plenty of examples of them which will help them stick in your memory; and (b) they tend to come in pairs of opposites or pairs of verbs with similar meanings.

Note:

  • These verbs also use être when prefixed with re-: revenir, repartir etc.
  • The verb monter usually figures on people's list of "verbs that always take être". But actually there are some common cases where it takes avoir so is also included in the category below!

Slight complication: occasions where these verbs use avoir

Strictly speaking, these verbs only use être when they are intransitive. In simple terms, that means when there isn't "a thing having something done to it". In more grammatical terms, it means when the verb doesn't have a direct object. So compare the following examples:

il est descendu
he came down
il a descendu l'escalier
he came down the stairs
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In the first case, we don't explicitly say what is being 'come down': the verb is just used 'on its own'. In this case, the verb is said to be intransitive. Whereas in the second case, the sentence explicitly includes l'escalier. In this second sentence, l'escalier is the "direct object" of descendre (in simple terms, "the thing being come down"). Because there is a direct object, the verb is said to be transitive.

Another way to remember this is to think that in expressions consisting of "verb plus thing", such as descendre/monter l'escalier (to go down/up the stairs), sortir les poubelles (to take the bins out), the verb must always take avoir.

Note that at GCSE level, descendre l'escalier is pretty much the only case you'll have to worry about. Another expression you may have come across is monter une pièce (to put on a play). This would also take avoir: une pièce is the direct object.

Common verbs that sometimes use avoir and sometimes use être

There are a handful of verbs where both avoir and être are used to form the perfect tense. Generally, they are verbs with different shades of meaning, and the particular meaning determines which is used.

passer

As with all non-reflexive verbs, the verb passer when used with a direct object must take avoir. In this usage, it usually means "to pass":

il m'a passé le ballon
he passed me the ball
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When used without an object, passer has a variety of translations such as "to come by", "to pass by", "to go by", "to go through" etc. It is widely used with these meanings, and generally forms its perfect tense with être:

il est passé chez moi à huit heures
he came round to my place at eight
elle est passée par Paris
she went through Paris
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In all of these cases, avoir is also possible but there seems to be a tendancy to use être.

monter

This verb generally takes être, but commonly takes avoir when referring to the level of something rising (water, prices etc). For example:

le prix du tabac a monté
the price of tobacco has risen
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In other cases, particularly when the subject is a person, être is used:

il est monté jusqu'au troisième étage
he went up to the third floor
je suis monté sur les montagnes russes
I went on the big dipper
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Remember that, like any verb, it must take avoir when used with a direct object. This means phrases such as monter l'escalier:

il a monté l'échelle
he climbed the ladder

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convenir

In the phrase convenir à meaning to suit, the perfect tense is formed with avoir.

In the phrase, convenir de meaning to agree upon (and convenir que meaning to agree that), the perfect tense is formed with either avoir or être. Examples from Google suggest that être predominates.

Less common verbs that sometimes use avoir and sometimes use être

Click here for information on some other less common verbs that sometimes take avoir and sometimes take être.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.