Auxiliary Verbs – Avoir vs Être

French auxiliary verbs
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Verbes auxiliaires

Auxiliary verbs are also known as helping verbs, because they help form compound conjugations, meaning compound tenses like the passé composé as well as compound moods like the past subjunctive.

 The key thing to remember about compound conjugations is that there are two verbs:

  1. Auxiliary verb, whose conjugation determines the tense or mood
  2. Main verb, which is always in the form of the past participle

Par exemple…

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.

Être verbs

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…
aller   to go    
arriver   to arrive    
décéder   to die    
descendre    to descend / go downstairs    redescendre – to descend again
entrer   to enter   rentrer – to re-enter
monter   to climb   remonter – to climb again
mourir   to die    
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
rester   to stay    
retourner   to return    
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.

 Être verbs require agreement in all compound tenses.

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


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:

Note: You must be logged into your Progress with Lawless French account to take these tests. If you don’t have one, sign up – it’s free!

French auxiliary verbs

  1. Introduction
  2. Variable auxiliary verbs
  3. Omitting auxiliary verbs
  4. Auxiliary verbs à fond

 Related lessons

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Avoir vs être - French auxiliary verbs

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