Auxiliary Verbs: French Grammar and Pronunciation Glossary

Auxiliary verbs, 'avoir' or 'être,' are the first verbs in a compound tense

Portrait of bearded brunette man gesturing horn sign.
Hero Images/Getty Images

The auxiliary verb stands in front of the main verb in a compound tense to indicate mood and tense. In French, it's either avoir or être. Conjugation of the auxiliary, or helping, verb determines the subject, tense and mood of the main verb.

All French verbs are classified by which auxiliary verb they take, and they use the same auxiliary verb in all compound tenses.

'Avoir' or 'Étre'

Most French verbs use avoir.

A much smaller number (and their derivatives) require être. The verbs that use être are intransitive verbs that indicate a certain kind of movement:

Use a Mnemonic Device to Remember Verbs That Take 'Étre'

Until you've memorized all 14 verbs, you might want to use a mnemonic device such as ADVENT. 

Each letter in ADVENT stands for one of the verbs and its opposite, plus the extra verbs Passer and Retourner, for a total of 14.

  • Arriver - Partir
  • Descendre - Monter
  • Venir - Aller
  • Entrer - Sortir
  • Naître - Mourir
  • Tomber - Rester
  • Extra: Passer and Retourner 

More 'Étre' in Compound Tenses

1. Étre is also used as an auxiliary verb with pronominal verbs:

  •     Je me suis levé. > I got up.
  •     Il s'est rasé. > He shaved.

2. For verbs conjugated with être, the past participle has to agree with the subject in gender and number in all compound tenses:

  •  Il est allé. > He went. 
  • Elle est allée. > She went.
  • Ils sont allés. > They went.    
  • Elles sont allées. > They went.

3. Verbs conjugated with être are intransitive, meaning they have no direct object.

However, six of these verbs can be used transitively (with a direct object) and their meaning changes slightly. When this happens, avoir becomes their auxiliary verb. For example:

Passer

  •    Je suis passé devant le parc. > I went by the park.
  •    J'ai passé la porte. > I went through the door.
  •    J'ai passé une heure ici. > I spent an hour here.

Rentrer (a derivative of entrer)

  •    Je suis rentré. > I came home.
  •    J'ai rentré les chaises. > I brought the chairs inside.

Retourner

  •    Elle est retournée en France. > She has returned to France.
  •    Elle a retourné la lettre. > She returned/sent back the letter

Semi-Auxiliary Verbs

In addition to auxiliary verbs, French has a number of semi-auxiliary verbs, such as aller, devoir and faire, which are conjugated and followed by an infinitive. They express various nuances of time, mood or aspect. Some semi-auxiliary verbs are equivalent to modal verbs in English and some are verbs of perception. For example:

  •  Je suis allé voir mon frère. > I went to see my brother.
  •  Il est parti étudier en Italie. > He went to study in Italy.
  • J'ai dû partir. > I had to leave.
  • J'ai fait laver la voiture. > I had the car washed.
  • Je suis venu aider. > I've come to help.