All About 'Avoir,' a French Super Verb

'Avoir' ('to have') functions as a transitive, auxiliary and impersonal verb

Avoir is an irregular French verb that means "to have." The multitalented verb avoir 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: être, faire, dire, aller, voir, savoir, pouvoir, falloir and pouvoir.

The Three Functions of 'Avoir'

The many forms of avoir are busy binding together the French language in three essential ways: 1) as a frequently used transitive verb with a direct object, 2) as the most common auxiliary verb for the language's compound tenses and 3) as an impersonal verb in the ubiquitous French expression il y a ("there is, there are"). 

Transitive Verb

When used alone, avoir is a transitive verb that takes a direct object. Avoir means "to have" in most senses, including having something in one's possession and currently experiencing something. Avoir à can mean "to have to," but that expression is more commonly translated by devoir.

  •    J'ai deux stylos. > I have two pens.
  •    J'ai trois frères. > I have three brothers.
  •    J'ai mal à la tête. > I have a headache.
  •    J'ai une idée. > I have an idea.
  •    J'ai été eu. > I've been had (tricked).
  •    Ils ont de l'argent. > They have money.
  •    On a essayé de t'avoir toute la journée. > We tried to get through to you all day.
  •    Elle a de la famille/des amis à dîner. >  She has relatives/friends over for dinner.
  •    Elle a beaucoup de sa mère. >  She really takes after her mother.

Auxiliary Verb

Avoir is by far the most frequently used auxiliary, or helping, verb in French compound tenses, which include a conjugated form of avoir with the past participle of the primary verb.

As an auxiliary verb, it is used to build compound tenses, such as passé composé. Verbs that don't use avoir, use être as their auxiliary verb. For example:

  •    J'ai déjà étudié. > I have already studied.
  •    J'aurai mangé avant ton arrivée. > I will have eaten before you arrive.
  •    Si j'avais su, je t'aurais téléphoné. > If I had known, I would have called you.
  •    J'aurais voulu vous aider. >  I'd have liked to help you.
  •    Il les a jetés dehors. > He threw them out.
  •   J'ai maigri. > I've lost weight.
  •   As-tu bien dormi ? > Did you sleep well ?
  •   J'ai été surpris. > I was surprised.
  •   Il aurait été enchanté. > He would have been delighted.

Impersonal Verb in 'Il y a'

One cannot underestimate how essential this function is to the French language, as the equivalent is to English. As an impersonal verb (verbe impersonnel), avoir is the verb in the utilitarian expression il y a. It translates to "there is" when followed by a singular, and "there are" when followed by a plural. A few examples:

  • Il y a du soleil. > It's sunny. / The sun is shining.
  • Il y a juste de quoi faire une salade. > There's just enough to make a salad.
  • Il n'y a qu'à lui dire. > We just have to tell him.
  • Il y a 40 ans de ça.  > 40 years ago.

A Word About Pronunciation: FORMAL VS. MODERN 

Careful with the pronunciation of avoir. Consult an audiobook to hear correct pronunciations.

1. In more formal French, there are many sound liaisons involved with the pronunciation of avoir:

  • Nous avons > Nous Z-avons
  • Vous avez > Vous Z-avez
  • Ils/Elles ont > Ils Z-ont (silent t)

Students often confuse the pronunciation of ils ont (aller, Z sound) and ils sont (être, S sound), which is a major mistake.

2. In informal modern French, there are a lot of "glidings" (elisions). For example, tu as is pronounced ta.

3. Glidings are in everyday pronunciations of the common expression il y a:

  • il y a = ya
  • il n'y a pas (de) = yapad
  • il y en a = yan na

    IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS WITH 'AVOIR'

    Avoir is used in a number of idiomatic expressions, many of which are translated by the English verb "to be." 

    •    J'ai 30 ans. > I am 30 years old
    •    J'ai soif / faim. > I am thirsty / hungry.
    •    J'ai froid/chaud. > I'm cold/ hot.
    •    avoir ___ ans > to be ___ years old
    •   avoir besoin de > to need
    •   avoir envie de > to want
    •   Merci. Il n'y a pas de quoi ! [OR Pas de quoi.] > Thank you. Don't mention it. / You're welcome .
    •   Qu'est-ce qu'il y a ? > What's the matter ?
    •   (réponse, familier) Il y a que j'en ai marre ! > I'm fed up, that's what! 
    •   Il y en a OR Il y a des gens, je vous jure ! (familier) > Some people, honestly / really !

    Conjugations of 'Avoir'

    Below is the useful present-tense conjugation of avoir. For all the tenses, both simple and compound, see avoir conjugations.

    Present tense
       j'ai
       tu as
       il a
       nous avons
       vous avez
       ils ont

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    Lawless, Laura K. "All About 'Avoir,' a French Super Verb." ThoughtCo, Jul. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/to-have-in-french-1368814. Lawless, Laura K. (2017, July 5). All About 'Avoir,' a French Super Verb. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/to-have-in-french-1368814 Lawless, Laura K. "All About 'Avoir,' a French Super Verb." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/to-have-in-french-1368814 (accessed December 18, 2017).