The French verb être is one of the most common verbs in French. It is used often both as a main verb and as a helping verb (auxiliary verb) when another main verb expresses an action. As an irregular verb, être takes some time to learn.
This French verb is irregular, which means that the conjugated verb is not always recognizable as belonging to the infinitive verb and it does not follow a typical conjugation pattern. With a little practice, the French verb être will be naturally integrated into your speech and writing in French.
Forms of Être
Present participle: étant
Past participle: été
Auxiliary Verb: avoir
Conjugations in Context
The following sentences use the verb être either as a main verb or as an auxiliary verb:
- Je suis content(e): I am happy (main verb)
- Il est professeur: He is a teacher (main verb)
- Nous sommes en France: We are in France (main verb)
- Vous êtes en retard: You are late (main verb)
- Tu es allé: You went (auxiliary for main verb aller)
- Ils sont partis: They left (auxiliary for main verb partir)
Using the French Verb Être
This is a very common French verb; learning its many uses can provide you with multiple phrases and meanings. First, the verb simply means "to be." It can be used with this meaning in several tenses: the present tense expresses what somebody or something currently is (''je suis content''), the past tense expresses what somebody or something was (''il était content''), and the future tense expresses what somebody or something will be (''tu seras content''). The conditional can also be expressed with this verb to show what somebody or something would be, given a certain condition being true (''si j'avais beaucoup de temps libre, je serais content.'')
In addition to the principle uses of être, the verb is also extremely important as an auxiliary verb. In the passé composé, this verb is used as the auxiliary of several movement verbs. Although most verbs in the passé composé are conjugated with the auxiliary verb avoir, some of the verbs conjugated with être are very frequently used, making it important to learn the list of French verbs that are conjugated with être in the passé composé.
Verbs Conjugated with Être
An important thing to remember with the verbs conjugated with être in the passé composé is that the past participle must agree in gender and number with the person (subject) of the verb: Il est allé, elle est allée, ils sont allés, elles sont allées. If the above verbs are used with a direct object, the auxiliary verb switches to avoir: "je suis sorti" becomes "j'ai sorti la poubelle."
When Not to Use Être
Several English contexts in which the verb 'to be' is used do not use être in French. For example, in French you say that you "have cold" instead of that you "are cold": j'ai froid. Likewise, you "have finished" and you "have hunger" (instead of "being hungry"). Using être in these constructions is a characteristic of beginner French. In addition to these expressions that use "avoir" instead of être, weather expressions use the verb "faire": Il fait beau.
Expressions with Être
Several expressions use the verb être:
- The French question formation est-ce que: "Est-ce que tu viens nous voir?" (Are you coming to see us?)
- C'est ça: that's it
- N'est-ce pas?: Isn't that right?
- Être en train de: to be doing something. For example, "Etre en train de faire ses valises" (Packing one's suitcase)
- C'est + date: "C'est le 24 juin" (It's the 24th of June.)
Once you have learned the basics of this French verb, you can use it in many regular and idiomatic expressions. Since the verb is used so frequently, you should pick up its idiosyncracies with a bit of exposure to the French language. The more French you hear and read, the quicker and better you will learn the conjugations and usages of this common French verb.