All About Être, a French Super Verb

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

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Lawless, Laura K. "All About Être, a French Super Verb." ThoughtCo, Jul. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/french-verb-etre-1368842. Lawless, Laura K. (2017, July 5). All About Être, a French Super Verb. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/french-verb-etre-1368842 Lawless, Laura K. "All About Être, a French Super Verb." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/french-verb-etre-1368842 (accessed September 25, 2017).

Être is an irregular French verb that means "to be." The multitalented verb être is omnipresent in the French written and spoken language 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 VoiceÊtre in the present tense and the past participle of the main verb form 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'

There are a multitude of idiomatic expressions using être. Here are a few of the better-known expressions:

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