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The key thing to remember about compound conjugations is that there are two verbs:
- Auxiliary verb, whose conjugation determines the tense or mood
- Main verb, which is always in the form of the past participle
|J’ai mangé.||I have eaten, I ate.||passé composé|
|J’avais mangé.||I had eaten.||pluperfect|
|J’aurai mangé.||I will have eaten.||future perfect|
French has two auxiliary verbs. Avoir is the auxiliary for the vast majority of French verbs, but there are a number of notable exceptions for which être is the auxiliary. Whichever verb it is, the auxiliary is consistent for all compound conjugations: avoir verbs always take avoir as their auxiliary verb for all compound tenses and moods, while être verbs always take être. However, there are a few verbs that can take either auxiliary, depending on how they’re used: learn more.
Since most French verbs take avoir, it makes sense to memorize the relatively short list of the ones that don’t. Verbs that require être as the auxiliary can be divided into two groups:
1. All pronominal verbs
2. Intransitive verbs of movement – when the following verbs are used intransitively*, they require être as their auxiliary:
|And their derivatives…|
|descendre||to descend / go downstairs||redescendre – to descend again|
|entrer||to enter||rentrer – to re-enter|
|monter||to climb||remonter – to climb again|
|naître||to be born||renaître – to be reborn, born again|
|partir||to leave||repartir – to leave again|
|passer||to pass||repasser – to come/go back|
|sortir||to go out||ressortir – to go out again|
|tomber||to fall||retomber – to fall again|
|venir||to come||devenir – to become
parvenir – to reach, achieve
revenir – to come again, come back
* Intransitively = without a direct object. Most of these verbs can only be intransitive, so they always require être as the auxiliary. But eight of them can be used transitively, and when that happens, they need avoir.
With practice, you’ll get used to these verbs and know instinctively that they require être, but for right now, you might find one of these mnemonic devices helpful.
La Maison d’être
Native French-speaking teachers teach être verbs by having students draw a house with a door, windows, at least two rooms, and a staircase, and then label it with the être verbs. For example, draw a figure passing in front of the house (passer), another entering it (entrer), and a third going upstairs (monter).
The Infamous Vandertramps
DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP seems to be the standard mnemonic device for être verbs in the United States. I don’t like it – I think including the derivatives is silly, but whatever works for any given student is all that matters.
Also note that passer is missing.
Each letter in ADVENT stands for one of the verbs and its opposite, and then there’s one extra verb.
Once again, passer is missing.
Arriver – Partir
Descendre – Monter
Venir – Aller
Entrer – Sortir
Naître – Mourir
Tomber – Rester
DRAPERS VAN MMT13
Each letter stands for one of the 13 verbs. As always, passer is missing.
13 total verbs
Avoir vs être Quizzes
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on French auxiliary verbs with these fill-in-the-blank exercises:
French auxiliary verbs
- Compound conjugations
- Past participle
- Passé composé
- Pronominal verbs
- Verb conjugation tables
- Introduction to French verbs
- Avoir, Être et le Passé composé (Lesson, 6th-8th grade)
- DR MRS VANDERTRAMP (Lesson, 9th-12th grade)
- En vacances (Lesson, 9th-12th grade)
- Passé composé (Powerpoint, 6th-9th grade)
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