All About Être, a French Super Verb

Chief among its many uses: auxiliary in compound tenses and the passive voice

Être is an irregular French verb that means "to be." The multitalented verb être is omnipresent in the French language, both written and spoken and appears in a multitude of idiomatic expressions, thanks to its utility and versatility. It is one of the most-used French verbs. In fact, of the thousands of French verbs, it is among the top 10, which also include: avoir, faire, dire, aller, voir, savoir, pouvoir, falloir and pouvoir.

Être is also an auxiliary verb in compound tenses and the passive voice.

The Three Main Uses of 'Être'

The many forms of être are busy binding together the French language in three essential ways: 1) to describe a temporary or permanent state of being, 2) to describe someone's profession, and 3) to indicate possession. 

1. Être is used with adjectives, nouns, and adverbs to describe a temporary or permanent state of being. For example:

  •    Il est beau. > He is handsome.
  •    Je suis à Paris. > I'm in Paris.
  •    Nous sommes français. > We're French.
  •    Il est là-bas. > He's over there.

2. Être is used to describe someone's profession; note that in French the indefinite article is not used in this type of construction. For example:

  •    Mon père est avocat. > My father is a lawyer.
  •    Je suis étudiant. > I'm a student.
  •   Elle était professeur. > She used to be a professor.

3. Être can be used with the preposition à plus a stressed pronoun to indicate possession. For example:

  •    Ce livre est à moi. > This is my book.
  •     À qui est cet argent ? C'est à Paul. > Whose money is this? It's Paul's.

Être as an Auxiliary Verb 

1. For Compound Tenses: While avoir is the auxiliary for most verbs in the French compound tensesêtre is the auxiliary for some verbs as well. The conjugated auxiliary verb is used with the past participle of the main verb to form the compound tense. For example:

  •    Je suis allé en France. > I went to France.
  •    Nous étions déjà sortis. > We had already left.
  •    Il serait venu si... > He would have come if...

2. For the ​Passive Voice: Être in the present tense and the past participle of the main verb forms the passive voice. For example:

  •    La voiture est lavée. - The car is washed.
  •    Il est respecté de tout le monde. > He is respected by everyone.

Expressions With 'Avoir' That Mean 'to Be' 

When does "to have" (avoir) mean "to be" (être) in French? In several idiomatic expressions, which are governed by the laws of use over time, as odd as the use may seem. For this reason, there are a number of "state of being" idiomatic expressions with avoir that are translated as "to be" in English:

  •    avoir froid > to be cold
  •    avoir raison > to be right
  •    avoir xx ans > to be xx years old

Weather Expressions Use 'Faire,' Not 'Être'

Weather is another instance of odd idiomatic usage. When talking about the weather, English uses a form of the verb "to be." French uses the verb faire (to do or make) rather than être:

  •    Quel temps fait-il ? > How's the weather?
  •    Il fait beau. > It is nice out. / The weather is nice.
  •    Il fait du vent. > It is windy.

Idiomatic Expressions with 'Être'

A multitude of idiomatic expressions using être existHere are a few of the better-known expressions:

  • être à côté de la plaque > to be way off the mark, to not have a clue
  • être bien dans sa peau > to be at ease/comfortable with oneself
  • être bouche bée > to be flabbergasted
  • être dans le doute > to be doubtful
  • être dans la mouise (familiar) > to be flat broke
  • être dans la panade (familiar) > to be in a sticky situation
  • être dans son assiette > to feel normal, like oneself
  • être de > to be at/in (figuratively)
  • être en train de + infinitive > to be (in the process of) + present participle
  • être haut comme trois pommes > to be knee-high to a grasshopper
  • être sur son trente et un > to be dressed to the nines
  • en être > to take part in
  • ça m'est égal > it's all the same to me
  • ça y est > that's it, it's done
  • c'est > it is (impersonal expression)
  • c'est + date > it's (date)
  • c'est-à-dire > that is, i.e., I mean
  • c'est à moi / toi / Paul > that's mine / yours / Paul's
  • c'est ça > that's it, that's right
  • c'est cadeau > It's free, on the house
  • c'est dans la poche > It's in the bag, a sure thing, a done deal
  • c'est grâce à > it's (all) thanks to

Conjugations of 'Être'

Below is the useful present-tense conjugation of être. For a complete conjugation of tenses, see all tenses.

Present tense

  • je suis
  • tu es
  • il est
  • nous sommes
  • vous êtes
  • ils sont