The French “passé composé” is a tricky tense, with plenty of weird French conjugation rules.
French people use it a lot in spoken conversation. It’s the main way to talk about the past!
It’s not an easy tense, though. In fact, I’ve even previously recorded another lesson for all the difficulties of le passé composé:
One of the first things you need to learn for every verb is, “does it use être or avoir ?”
Well here’s a “fun” fact: some verbs can use both ! And it even changes the verb’s meaning, depending on which you use.
Today, we’re going to see six verbs that can use both “avoir” and “être”.
Learning goals: This is what you’ll be able to do after watching this lesson
Beginner: Learn six new French verbs
Intermediate: Learn the two meanings of the verb when conjugated with either être or avoir
Advanced: Master the grammar behind this trick!
Bonjour c’est Géraldine, bienvenue sur Comme une Française. C’est parti !
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- Entrer = to go in, to enter
We can conjugate its passé composé with:
- être (=”to be”)
→ Il est entré par la porte. He entered through the door.
- avoir (=”to have”)
→ Il a entré la clé dans la serrure. He entered the key in the lock.
The simple difference:
If the subject of the sentence is the one entering somewhere, then it’s être.
If the subject of the sentence is entering something else, then it’s avoir.
The detailed answer: Grammar time!
Avoir is used when there’s a direct object (un complément d’objet direct = COD), which is a noun that completes the meaning of the verb without using a preposition.
Il a entré la clé dans la serrure → “la clé” (the key) is a direct object, there’s no preposition between “entré” and “la clé.” So we use Avoir.
“Il est entré la clé dans la serrure” with être instead of avoir is WRONG.
Il est entré par la porte → There’s a preposition (“par”) between “entré” and “la porte.” So, “la porte” is not a direct object! So, we use être.
(See also the “rule of thumb” : “He”, the subject, is the one who physically entered somewhere.)
Il est entré dans la serrure → With the same process as the last sentence, we can say this sentence is grammatically correct. However, it means “He entered the lock,” which has a weird meaning outside of context. Is “he” really small? Is it a giant lock?
Usually in French, Être means “to be” and avoir means “to have.”
However, they’re also used as verbes auxiliaires (= auxiliary verbs) for some tenses such as le passé composé. In this context, literal translations aren’t really meaningful anymore.
Sortir = to leave, to go out, to take out…
In French, we conjugate it in the passé composé with:
- Être → Il est sorti de la maison à 20 heures. He left the house at 8pm.
- Avoir → Il a sorti ses gants de sa poche. He took his gloves out of his pocket;
Rule of thumb:
If the subject is the one that’s going from “inside” to “outside” (= to leave, to go out), then we use être.
If the subject is making something else go from “inside” to “outside” (= to take out), then we use avoir.
The same rule applies: a COD means we use avoir, otherwise we use être.
Here is one more rule (that also applies for “entrer” and others):
→ When we conjugate using être, the participe passé (“entré”, “sorti”…) must agree with the subject! That means adding an -e for a feminine subject, and a -s for a plural subject.
Il est sorti de la maison à 20 heures.
Elle est sortie de la maison…
Mon frère et moi, nous sommes sortis…
Ma mère et moi (Géraldine), nous sommes sorties…
Laura et toi (Robert), vous êtes sortis…
Laura et toi (Julie), vous êtes sorties…
Ils sont sortis…
Elles sont sorties…
“On” is the informal “We”. Even though it uses the conjugation of the third person singular (“Il / Elle”), the past participle will agree with the plural (and the feminine too, if the “we” are all female).
So we would write :
Michel et moi (Robert), on est sortis…
Juliette et moi (Sophie), on est sorties..
Passer = to pass, to pass by, to drop by…
Passer du temps = to spend some time
The same grammar rules apply once again! A COD means we use avoir, otherwise we use être.
So we can write:
- être : Martine est passée me voir à l’hôpital. Martine dropped by to see me at the hospital.
→ No COD. We use “être”, and “entrée” agrees with “Martine”
- avoir : Arthur a passé son brevet de secourisme. Arthur passed his first aid certificate.
→ COD = “Son brevet de secourisme”, so “avoir”.
Tourner = to turn, to go around
Tourner un film = to shoot a movie
- être : La mosquée est tournée vers la Mecque. The mosque is turned towards Mecca.
- avoir : Apolline a tourné la page de son livre. Apolline turned the page of her book.
Tourner la page (= literally “to turn the page”) also means “to make a fresh start”.
Monter = to go up, to reach, to assemble…
When something or someone goes from a lower to a higher position, you can use this verb.
Être : Lucie est montée se coucher. = Lucie went upstairs to go to bed.
Avoir : Gérard a monté le carton au grenier. = Gérard put the cupboard in the attic.
“monter un meuble” = assemble a piece of furniture
Tu m’aides à monter mon étagère ? = Can you help me assemble my shelf?
Descendre = to go down, to get off, to take down…
When something or someone goes from a higher to a lower position, you can use this verb.
Être : Diana est descendue du bus. = Diana got off the bus.
Avoir : Jacques a descendu la bouteille de vin à la cave. = Jacques took the bottle of wine down to the cellar.
7) Note for advanced students
The same grammar rules also apply for the “re-” (= again) versions of these verbs!
So we also have:
— Le truc en plus : highest level —
So, we’ve seen that with être, the past participle agrees with the subject.
With avoir, in all our examples, the past participle stays “neutral.”
Does that mean it never agrees with anything? No!
That’s the secret, most confusing part of French participe passé for many French children. This grammar rule is almost a rite of passage!
When the direct object comes in the sentence before the past participle, then the past participle agrees with the direct object.
Il a monté son armoire. (= He assembled his shelf) → COD comes after “a monté”, it stays neutral.
Il l’a montée (= He assembled it (it = his shelf, in context)) → COD is “l” for “shelf”, it comes before “montée”, so the past participle agrees with the feminine singular.
You can get a more in-depth look at all the other difficulties that come with French conjugation in this tense, with my lesson on the grammar of Le Passé Composé.
How would you say, in French:
- Pierre entered the bathroom.
- I took out my umbrella.
- Jeanne and Sophie got off the metro.
(Answers: “Pierre est entré dans la salle de bain.” / “J’ai sorti mon parapluie.” / “Jeanne et Sophie sont descendues du métro.”)
Et toi ?
Écris une phrase en français avec l’un de ces 6 verbes.
Write a sentence in French with one of these 6 verbs.
For example: “Ce matin, j’ai sorti mon chien.” (This morning, I walked my dog.)
You can write down your answer in the comments below. In French if you dare!
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Allez, salut 🙂