Variable Auxiliary Verbs

Variable French auxiliary verbs
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Verbes auxiliaires variables

About two dozen intransitive French verbs require être as their auxiliary in the compound tenses and moods. Of these, eight can be used transitively, and when they are, two things happen:

  1. The auxiliary verb changes to avoir.
  2. The meaning of the verb changes slightly.

For six of these verbs, the difference is simply a matter of whether the subject is moving itself or a direct object. If the subject is moving, the verb is intransitive and you need être. If there’s a direct object, the verb is transitive and you need avoir.

    intransitive (être)   transitive (avoir)
descendre   to go down(stairs)   to take down
entrer   to go in   to take/bring/put in
monter   to go up(stairs)   to take up
rentrer   to go home   to take back inside
retourner   to go back   to take back
sortir   to go out   to take out

Par exemple…

Je suis descendu.
   vs
J’ai descendu la chaise.
  I went downstairs.
   vs
I took the chair down.
Je suis retourné au magasin.
   vs
J’ai retourné le pull.
  I went back to the store.
   vs
I took the sweater back.

 You also need avoir when saying something like J’ai monté l’escalier. Even though it’s still you doing the moving, l’escalier is a direct object, so the verb is transitive. It might help to think of it as "I took the stairs up" rather than "I went upstairs."

The other two verbs are a bit more complicated.

Passer

When used intransitively, passer is followed by a preposition and means "to pass / to go past."

Par exemple…

Je suis passé devant la porte.   I went past the door.
Je suis passé par Rouen.   I passed through Rouen.

When there’s a direct object, passer has two potential meanings:

1) to go through
J’ai passé la porte.   I went through/out the door.
2) to spend time
J’ai passé un mois à Rouen.   I spent a month in Rouen.

Repasser

Intransitively, repasser means "to go past again."

Par exemple…

Je suis repassé devant la porte.   I went past the door again
Je suis repassé par Rouen.   I passed through Rouen again.

With a direct object, repasser has a number of possible meanings:

  • to come/go back through
  • to iron
  • to pass (around) again
  • to repeat (a song)
  • to retake (a test)
  • to show again

 Demeurer

Demeurer (to stay, live) is a special case: it’s usually conjugated with avoir, but you should be aware that it takes être in formal/literary French and means "to remain."

French auxiliary verbs

  1. Introduction and list of être verbs
  2. Variable auxiliary verbs
  3. Omitting auxiliary verbs

 Related lessons

 

Avoir vs être

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2 Responses

  1. Kerleigh 27 October 2017 / 21:24

    Et est-ce que je peux aussi dire “Le bûcheron a tombé un arbre” ?

    • lkl 27 October 2017 / 21:49

      Selon le Petit Robert, on peut le dire dans le Centre et le Sud-Est de la France. Mais en général, on dit soit “il a fait tomber un arbre” soit “il a abattu un arbre.”