Verbes auxiliaires variables
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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:
- The auxiliary verb changes to avoir.
- The meaning of the verb changes slightly.
Transitive vs Intransitive
For six of these verbs, the difference is simply a matter of whether the subject is moving only itself or with/in/on 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|
|Je suis descendu.
J’ai descendu la chaise.
|I went downstairs.
I took the chair down.
|Je suis retourné au magasin.
J’ai retourné le pull.
|I went back to the store.
I took the sweater back.
Note that you need also 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.
|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.|
Intransitively, repasser means "to go past again."
|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 (to stay, live) is a special case: it’s usually conjugated with avoir, but in formal/literary French it takes être and means "to remain."
Avoir vs être Quizzes
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on variable French auxiliary verbs with these fill-in-the-blank exercises:
French auxiliary verbs
- Introduction and list of être verbs
- Variable auxiliary verbs
- Omitting auxiliary verbs
- Auxiliary verbs à fond
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