How to memorize the “être” verbs?

May 2014 Lesson: “être” or “avoir” with “passé composé”
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How to memorize the “être” verbs?
(You will find part one of this lesson in the April 2014 issue of Think French.)
A way to help memorizing these verbs is to imagine a hiker coming to a mountain with a house
on top: being born in her village (naître), then coming to the mountain from her village (venir),
arriving to the mountain (arriver), climbing on it (monter), going through a cave (passer), then
going to the house (aller), entering the house (entrer), staying in the house (rester), exiting
the house (sortir), going down the mountain (descendre), falling (tomber)… but without dying
(mourir), leaving the mountain (partir), returning to her village (rentrer)…
Another way to memorize these verbs is DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP:
Partir et Passer par
Now, don’t forget that all reflexive verbs also use “être”.
• Je me suis lavée – (se laver) I washed myself.
I believe the mnemotechnic methods listed above to be useful for an exam, but not when you
speak. To make the right choice when speaking, you need to develop habits, reflexes, and the
best way is to get accustomed to hearing these verb forms used properly: use my French audio
books to study “être” and “avoir” verbs in the context of a story.
T hin k Fre nch - ma i 2 0 1 4
“Être” is the verb of the subject, “avoir” of the direct object
Now let’s go a bit deeper into grammar. I like to tell my students that “être” is the verb of the
subject, and “avoir” the verb of the direct object. “Être” is “allergic” to direct object: see what
happens now…
Many of the verbs above can be used in an “idiomatic” way, with a meaning which is twisted
from their original meaning. To say to take something down, in, out, up… we also use these
• Descendre la poubelle: to take the garbage downstairs
• Monter la valise: to take the suitcase upstairs
• Sortir les chiens: to take the dogs out
• Rentrer la voiture: to put the car inside the garage
• Passer + time = to spend + time
So now, you are going to have a direct object: la poubelle, la valise… Can you guess which
verb you’ll use to make passé composé? “Avoir”, that’s right!
When “être” verbs use “avoir”
J’ai descendu le sac: I took the bag downstairs
J’ai monté l’escalier: I went up the stairs
J’ai sorti la voiture: I took the car outside
J’ai rentré les jouets: I took the toys inside
J’ai passé le weekend à Paris: I spent the weekend in Paris
Note: there are many idiomatic meanings of these verbs + direct object:
• Descendre quelqu’un: to diss someone, also to kill someone
• Monter + someting: to build something up,
• Recently a popular song said “tomber la chemise” to say to remove one’s shirt…
Reflexive verbs + direct object
Some reflexive verbs can be used by a direct object, in particular part of the body. In this case,
you will still use “être”, but there will be no agreement: not with the subject, not with the
direct object…
• Camille s’est lavé les mains – Camille washed her hands.
Note also that we say “she washed (herself) THE hands”, not as in English “she washed HER
hands”, we use a definite article, not a possessive adjective.
w w w. t h i n k f re n c h . c o m