What’s the difference between avoir and être?

Avoir vs. être

The verbs avoirto have and êtreto be are two of the most important verbs in the French language: they can be used alone as main verbs or they can be used as auxiliary verbs to form the French compound tenses.

Read on to see the conjugation of these two verbs, then master the difference between avoir and être as auxiliary verbs. At the end, you can put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

How to conjugate avoir and être

avoir

être

présentimparfaitpassé simplefutur simple
j’ ai avais eus aurai
tu as avais eus auras
il a avait eut aura
nous avons avions eûmes aurons
vous avez aviez eûtes aurez
ils ont avaient eurent auront
présentimparfaitpassé simplefutur simple
je/j’ suis étais fus serai
tu es étais fus seras
il est était fut sera
nous sommes étions fûmes serons
vous êtes étiez fûtes serez
ils sont étaient furent seront

When to use avoir and être as main verbs

We use avoir as a main verb in the following cases:

  • to express ownership or possession
    Example:
    Il a une voiture.He has a car.
  • to describe a condition or state that refers to a noun
    Example:
    J’ai le temps.I have the time.
    Tu as une soeur.You have a sister
  • to talk about age
    Example:
    J’ai 23 ans.I am 23 years old.

We use être as a main verb in the following cases:

  • with adjectives
    Example:
    Tu es sympa.You are nice.
  • to identify things/people (description, nationality, professions, …)
    Example:
    C’est Laura. Elle est française. Elle est professeur.This is Laura. She is French. She is a teacher.
  • for dates and times
    Example:
    Aujourd’hui on est le 20 août. Il est 9 heures.Today is August 20th. It is 9 o’clock.

When to use avoir and être as auxiliary verbs

Avoir and être are used as auxiliary verbs to conjugate the compound tenses: le passé composé, le passé antérieur, le plus-que-parfait and le futur antérieur. Having trouble deciding which verb to use as your auxiliary? Read on to learn the difference between avoir and être.

avoir

Generally speaking, most verbs use avoir an an auxiliary verb in the compound tenses:

  • all transitive verbs (verbs that are followed by a direct object)
    Example:
    Il a mis la table.He set the table.
  • when the verbs avoir and être are also used as main verbs
    Example:
    Elle a eu un vélo.She had a bicycle.
    Elle a été malade.She was sick.

être

We use être as an auxiliary verb in the following cases:

  • for the following 14 verbs when they are used without a direct object: naître/mourirto be born/to die, aller/venirto go/to come, monter/descendreto go up/to go down, arriver/partirto arrive/to leave, entrer/sortirto enter/to go out, apparaîtreto appear, resterto stay, retournerto return, tomberto fall
    Example:
    Il est monté.He went up.
    but → Il a monté le paquet.He brought the parcel up.
  • for all reflexive verbs
    Example:
    Je me suis trompé.I was mistaken.
  • in passive sentences
    Example:
    Le vélo est réparé par Xavier.The bicycle is being repaired by Xavier.