Avoir: How to Use and Conjugate the Essential French Verb

Avoir is the French verb that means “to have”. But it has so much more than that going for it!

For one thing, as you probably know already, avoir is the most common auxiliary (helping) verb in French. It’s used to conjugate most other French verbs in the passé composé and other compound tenses.

That would be more than enough for most verbs, but avoir’s got to have it all! It’s also a key element of a number of very important phrases that cover basics like how old you are, what you need, and your state of physical health, not to mention what’s around you. And those are just the basics. There are countless phrases with avoir, many of them essential to add to your French vocabulary.

Let’s take a look at this surprisingly diverse verb!

What does avoir mean?

As a standalone verb, avoir means ‘to have’. 

As an auxiliary (helping) verb, it’s essentially an indicator of a verb tense and doesn’t suggest possession.

For example: J’ai cinq pommes (I have five apples)  vs. J’ai mangé cinq pommes (I ate five apples). 

Avoir can also be a noun. Un avoir usually means a receipt that shows you have store credit. For example:  Le magasin ne fait pas de remboursements, mais je peux vous faire un avoir.  (The store doesn’t give cash for returned items, but I can give you store credit.)  

Another definition for avoir is “asset”, but this is not very commonly used in everyday language in France.

Avoir as a verb

Avoir is the second most common French verb. So, naturally, it’s one of the first verbs you learn when you start studying the language. Like many frequently used verbs, it’s irregular, which means you’ll have to memorize it. You can find a conjugation chart here.

The good news about memorizing avoir is that you’ll use it so often that this will be easier than you might think!

One other thing to note about avoir is that its imperative forms are conjugated in the subjunctive: aie (this still follows the imperative rule of dropping the final “s” for the second-person singular verb), ayez, ayons.

You’ll often see these used with the negative tense. For example: N’ayez pas peur. (Don’t be afraid.)  As the example shows, the imperative usually involves expressions with avoir, rather than its standalone meaning of “to have”. 

Using avoir as an auxiliary verb should be easy, compared to using its fellow auxiliary verb, être. After all, you don’t have to agree objects and participles when you use it, right? Unfortunately, while this is true as a general rule, there are a few exceptions.

When avoir is an auxiliary verb, you have to agree the object and the past participle if…

1. You replace a direct object by an object pronoun. 

For example: Elle a acheté la robe (She bought the dress) – no agreement.

Elle l’a achetée. (She bought it.) – agreement because la robe has been replaced by the object pronoun (la, used here as l’ because it’s followed by a noun).

Or: Je t’ai acheté des gâteaux. (I bought you some cookies) – no agreement.

Je les ai achetés pour toi . (I bought them for you. Agreement because des gateaux is replaced by les)

2. If you describe something with que followed by another clause.

For example:  J’ai lu une histoire fascinante. (I read a fascinating story.) – no agreement.

C’est une histoire fascinante que Simone a écrite. (It’s a beautiful story that Simone wrote.)

Or: Ce matin, j’ai vu deux chats dans le jardin. (This morning, I saw two cats in the garden.) – no agreement.

Voici les deux chats que j’ai vus dans le jardin ! (There are the two cats I saw in the garden!)

This very helpful article includes a good explanation of these rules, as well as a number of examples. 

The agreement rules with avoir may seem a bit confusing – and to be perfectly honest, I still forget about them from time to time, even after years of speaking and living in France. The best thing to do is to keep practicing and try to stay aware of these exceptions. See if you can spot them in things you read in French. 

Should you use avoir or être to conjugate a verb?

people-holding-hand-on-bike
Avoid and être are both helping verbs used to conjugate other verbs in compound tenses.

Both avoir and être can be auxiliary (helping) verbs, used in conjugating other verbs in compound tenses. But that doesn’t mean you should use them interchangeably!

You can check out our article on être for the list of verbs (often identified by the acronym Dr. Mrs. P. Vandertramp) that use être as an auxiliary verb. 

Reflexive verbs, as well as verbs used in a reflexive sense, are also conjugated with être. 

But things get a bit tricky again here: some verbs that are usually not reflexive, can become reflexive depending on the context. For example, the verb dire is conjugated with avoir. But if you want to imply “saying something to each other, saying something to oneself, saying something to themselves, etc.”, you would make this a reflexive verb and conjugate it with être instead.

For example: J’ai dit de ne pas m’embêter ! (I said not to bother me!)

Je me suis dit que cela ne serait pas une journée facile. (I told myself that it wouldn’t be an easy day.)

Rest assured, this doesn’t happen a lot. And as you practice and get to know French better, deciding when or if you need to make a verb reflexive will become, well, a reflex. 

Must-know expressions with avoir

As I wrote in the introduction, avoir is also important because it makes up many essential French phrases. Here are the ones you absolutely must know, in no particular order:

Il y a (There is/There are). Don’t get confused : although the verb avoir is conjugated in this phrase, it never changes to agree with what comes after. 

Examples: Il y a une fourmi sur la table. (There’s an ant on the table.) ; Il y a beaucoup de fourmis sur la table ! (There are a lot of ants on the table!).  

As with all of the phrases on this list, the verb does change tense, though. Example: Il y aura pas mal de monde à la fête ce soir. (There will be a lot of people at the party tonight.)

avoir _ ans (to be _ years old). This was probably one of the first statements you learned to say in French. Example: J’ai trente-sept ans. (I’m thirty-seven years old.) 

avoir besoin de (to need something). You can use this with a noun or with the infinitive of a verb. Examples: J’ai besoin d’un nouveau vélo. (I need a new bike)/Son chien a besoin de courir. (His dog needs to run.)

avoir envie de (to want). As with the previous example, you can use this phrase with a noun or with the infinitive of a verb. Examples: J’ai envie de chocolat. (I want some chocolate.)/J’ai envie de me reposer. (I want to rest a little.).  

Note that, like in English, this phrase can also be used to talk about sexual desire. J’ai envie de toi (I want you) is a phrase you’ll hear in a lot of French movies/TV shows, and maybe in real life, too!

avoir faim/avoir soif (to be hungry/to be thirsty).  Example: «Merci pour le sandwich ! J’avais très faim ! » «  De rien. Tu veux de l’eau ? » « Non merci, je n’ai pas soif. » (“Thanks for the sandwich! I was so hungry!” “No problem. Do you want some water?” “No thanks, I’m not thirsty.”)

avoir froid/chaud (to feel cold/to feel hot). «Oh là là, j’ai chaud! On met la clim’ ? » «Non ! Si on la met, j’aurai trop froid.» (‘Oh, I’m hot! Can we put on the A.C. ?’ ‘No! If we put it on, I’ll be too cold.’) 

Note that this expression is only used to describe someone experiencing feeling hot or cold. 

If something is hot or cold to the touch, you would use être. For example: Attention! Les patates sont chaudes, laisse-les refroidir. (Watch out! The potatoes are too hot, let them cool off.). 

If the air around you feels hot or cold, use faire, as you would to describe most weather- or atmosphere-related phenomenon in French. Il fait chaud dans cette pièce ! (It’s hot in this room!). 

Be careful to never say that a person is hot or cold. If you do, it either means they’re horny (chaud(e)) or frigid (froid(e)).  

If you want to say that a person feels hot or cold to the touch, you can either specify where: Son front est chaud, il a peut-être de la fièvre. (His forehead is hot, he might have a fever.) or specify what you mean. Il est chaud au toucher (He’s hot to the touch).  

avoir peur (de) (to be afraid (of)). You can use this as a standalone statement: Ils ont peur. (They’re afraid./They’re scared.) or with a noun or verb infinitive: Ils ont peur du noir (They’re afraid of the dark.); J’ai toujours peur de rater mon train, même si j’arrive très tôt à la gare. (I’m always afraid of missing my train, even if I get to the train station really early.)/Comme beaucoup de gens, j’ai peur des araignées. (Like many people, I’m scared of spiders.)

avoir mal (à la tête, au ventre, etc.) (to have an ache/pain (in the head, stomach, etc.). Example: Je pense que j’ai attrapé la grippe ! J’ai mal à la tête, mal au ventre…mal partout ! (I think I caught the flu! My head hurts, my stomach hurts…everything hurts!)

avoir raison/avoir tort (to be right/to be wrong). Example : Si tu me dis que les chats sont plus adorables que les chiens, je dirai que tu as raison, mais ce chien dira que tu as tort ! (If you told me that cats are cuter than dogs, I’d say that you’re right, but this dog would say you’re wrong!). 

Some other common, useful expressions with avoir

tired businessman
“En avoir marre” means “to be sick and tired.”

There are countless expressions with avoir. I say ‘countless” because, since many of these involve new words and slang, they can evolve or appear at any time. Here are some of the avoir expressions that I hear the most (along with those from the previous list, of course) here in Paris.:

en avoir marre de (to be sick and tired of/fed up with). This phrase is extremely common in France today, but it can seem a bit confusing to non-native speakers. Typically, en replaces de +something, but in this case, both are present. 

For example: Jean en a marre d’attendre Jeanne. (Jean is tired of waiting for Jeanne.); Nous en avons marre de toujours manger du poulet – on ne peut pas avoir du poisson ce soir? (We’re tired of always eating chicken – can’t we have fish tonight?). 

Most common of all, though, is simply using it as a standalone phrase: J’en ai marre! (I’m fed up!)

avoir droit/avoir le droit à/de (to be entitled to/to be allowed to).  The most common of these two similar phrases is avoir le droit – to be allowed to do something. You’ll especially hear it from kids, who are learning rules in school and at home. For example: Tu n’as pas le droit de faire ça ! (You’re not allowed to do that!). 

Avoir droit means that you’re entitled to. This phrase is a bit formal and is often seen or heard when rules are being spelled out. For example, a school might send a letter to parents describing meals they’re serving and say something like: Pour le goûter, chaque enfant a droit à un gateau. (For snack time/tea, each child is entitled to one cookie.)

You follow each of these phrases with either à or de. You use à before a noun and de before a verb, as you can see in the previous examples, or here: 

À Paris, les personnes âgées ont droit à des billets de Métro gratuits. Ils ont de la chance ! (In Paris, senior citizens are allowed free Metro tickets. Lucky them!) 

À Paris, les personnes âgées ont le droit de prendre le Métro gratuitement. Ils ont de la chance ! (In Paris, senior citizens are allowed to ride the Metro for free. Lucky them!)

– avoir l’air/avoir l’air de (to seem/to look like). Example 1: Il a l’air malade. Il a l’air d’un homme condamné. (He looks sick/He looks like a man bound for the scaffold.)  Example 2: Ces chaussures sont trop grandes – tu as l’air d’un clown ! (Those shoes are too big – you look like a clown!)

avoir de la chance (to be lucky). There are many expressions with avoir  to say someone is lucky, but this is the most common, standard one. Example: Tu as gagné un t-shirt ? Tu as de la chance ! (You won a t-shirt ? You’re lucky/Lucky you!). Note that this generally means you’re currently lucky because of something that’s happened, not necessarily lucky in general.

avoir hâte de (can’t wait to…). It’s hard to translate the expression “can’t wait” into French because the structures in French and English are so different. In French, this(or its equivalent, être impatient(e) de…) is the most common, standard equivalent. It literally means, “I have haste to” – in other words, you’re hurrying towards something (or want to hurry). It’s often used in a formal register, including in professional correspondence. 

avoir l’habitude de (to be in the habit of). Although the phrase is a bit stilted in modern-day English, in French it’s very common, although there are simpler ways to say it, of course (for example, Chaque jour, je…, tous les jours tu…., elle fait toujours…). Ex : Nous ne sommes pas fatigués – nous avons l’habitude de nous coucher tard. (We’re not tired. We always go to bed late.)

avoir honte de (to be ashamed of or embarrassed by something/someone ). Example: Il a honte de ses dents. (He’s embarrassed by his teeth.)

avoir confiance/avoir confiance en (to trust/to have faith in). Examples: Tu vas réussir ton examen ! J’en ai confiance ! (You’re going to do great on your exam ! I just know it !)  « Fais-moi confiance, » le renard a dit au bonhomme de pain d’épices. (‘Trust me’, the fox said to the gingerbread man.)

avoir du mal à  (to have a hard time doing something). This can apply to something you consistently have trouble with (Quand quelqu’un me propose du chocolat, j’ai du mal à dire non! (When someone offers me chocolate, I have a hard time saying no!)) or something you’re currently struggling with. (J’ai du mal à ouvrir cette boite – tu peux m’aider? (I’m having trouble opening this can – can you help me ?)

Some common idiomatic expressions with avoir

bananas on red background
“Avoir la banane” means “to be smiling” or “to be happy.”

These are idiomatic expressions I hear often in Paris.

avoir d’autres chats à fouetter (to have bigger fish to fry). In other words, to have other, more important things to tend to.

-avoir __ dans le sang (__ is in one’s blood). To be innately talented or to intimately know something. Ex: Il a la musique dans le sang. (Music is in his blood.)

avoir des etoiles plein les yeux (to be so in love, amazed, impressed, seduced, etc., that you’re happy and, depending on the context, blind to any potential problems).  Je pense que Vlad est un vampire, mais Sophie a des étoiles plein les yeux ; elle n’a même pas remarqué qu’il n’a pas de reflet dans des miroirs ! (I think that Vlad is a vampire, but Sophie is so blinded by her love for him that she didn’t even notice he has no reflection in mirrors!)

avoir deux mains gauches (to be clumsy). In English, we say “to have two left feet.”

avoir la tête dans les nuages (to have one’s head in the clouds). In other words, to be dreamy or absentminded.

avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre (to have eyes bigger than one’s stomach). Ex : Je n’aurais pas dû commander deux plats ! J’avais les yeux plus gros que le ventre. (I shouldn’t have ordered two main courses ! My eyes were bigger than my stomach.) 

avoir une araignée au plafond (to be crazy/have bats in one’s belfry). The only problem with this expression is, if you’re afraid of spiders like I am, you always take it literally and think that someone actually has a spider on their ceiling, your reaction might make people say, «Elle a une araignée au plafond ! »

avoir des oursins dans la poche (to be cheap – literally : to have sea urchins in one’s pocket). Example: Jamais il ne t’achètera une belle bague; il a des oursins dans la poche! (He’ll never, ever buy you a nice ring; he’s cheap as hell!). Okay, I don’t actually hear this a lot in Paris, but every time I come across it, it makes me laugh. I mean, to imply that it’s physically painful for someone to reach into their pocket in such a creative way deserves a mention!

Some other colorful and common expressions with avoir

avoir de la gueule (to look cool). This extremely informal, slang expression is usually used to describe an object or possibly an animal, rather than a person. Example : Elle a de la gueule, ta chemise (Your shirt is pretty damn cool). This expression should only be used in an informal setting, with friends, not at work, etc.

avoir des couilles (to have balls). Another informal, slang expression, this one is also vulgar, as the “balls” in question are the ones between a man’s legs. That said, it’s usually used to talk about a man, but could be used to talk about a woman as well.

avoir des ennuis (to have some problems). This is often used as a euphemism, especially in crime shows/books/movies, where “some problems” are actually BIG problems. For example : « Donne-nous le fric ou tu vas avoir des ennuis. » (Give us the cash or you’re going to have some problems.)

avoir du bol (to be lucky). This usually means temporarily lucky. For example, Tu as eu 50% de réduction sur ton nouveau canapé ? Tu as du bol ! (You got 50% off your new sofa ? You’re lucky!)

avoir du caractère (to have a strong personality). This can be a good or bad thing, although it usually implies that the person in question is a bit difficult.

avoir la banane (to be happy, smiling). I’ve heard that this expression comes from the fact that a banana looks like a smile. It’s fairly informal but understood and accepted by the general public. So, it’s fine in most contexts but should probably be avoided if you’re writing a very formal letter or academic paper.

avoir la pêche (to be happy/in a good mood; to feel great). Example: Dis donc ! Tu as la pêche ce matin ! (Wow ! You’re in fine form this morning!). This phrase is a bit older and more mainstream than avoir la banane but it’s still somewhat informal and shouldn’t be used in formal or academic writing.

avoir la bougeotte (to have wanderlust, to be unable to sit still). This expression can describe everyone from a fidgety toddler (or, why not, adult?), to someone who loves to travel and doesn’t want to settle in one place. Example: Martine a la bougeotte. À peine rentrée d’un voyage, elle en planifie un autre. (Martine has wanderlust. Even when she’s just gotten back from one trip, she’s already planning another.)

avoir le béguin pour (to have a crush on). Simon sera là ce soir ? Marine sera contente – elle a le béguin pour lui. (Simon will be there tonight? Marine will be happy – she’s got a crush on him.) 

avoir le cafard (to have the blues, to be feeling down). This expression is common and also wonderful because it literally translates to “have the cockroach.” Then again, are cockroaches really depressed animals? It seems to me like they’re somewhat upbeat – they’re survivors and they’ve got hustle. But maybe it’s about what happens when a human being sees a cockroach in their house. 

avoir les boules (to be exasperated) . This expression literally translates to “to have the balls” (that is, balls you play sports with, not the same kind as couilles!). I first heard someone use it when I was a teaching assistant in a French school. One day, a frustrated teacher exclaimed, J’ai les boules! when she was venting in the teachers’ lounge. I later quietly asked another teacher what it meant, and she explained that the boules in question are a sensation in your throat or chest that makes you feel like you’re choking or overwhelmed.

avoir un balai dans le cul (to be uptight and/or snobby). The literal translation of this expression is “to have a broom in your ass”. As you may have guessed, it’s the equivalent of “to have a stick up your ass” in English. As you also may have guessed, it’s a vulgar term that you shouldn’t use in professional situations, around children, or with anyone who has un balai dans le cul.

avoir un petit creux (to be peckish/a little hungry). This literally translates to ‘to have a little hollow spot’, which I think is a perfect way to describe this feeling.

avoir une faim de loup (to be very hungry). On the other end of the hunger spectrum, there’s this expression, which literally translates to “to have a wolfish hunger.” Or, if you want the Duran Duran song in your head, you could say, “to be hungry like a wolf.”  It’s the equivalent of the English expression “to be as hungry as a horse.” Example: Il y a quelque chose à manger ?  J’ai une faim de loup ! (Is there anything to eat? I’m starving!) 

For many, many more expressions with avoir, check out this very thorough list on Word Reference. 

I hope you’ve had a good time learning about the different facets of avoir. Do you have a favorite avoir expression?   Let us know – especially if it’s not already on the list! 

7 thoughts on “Avoir: How to Use and Conjugate the Essential French Verb”

    • Hi J, the article was updated recently and you can see now that I’ve made it “chaud(e)”, implying that a man or woman could use this expression (or have it said about them).

      Reply
  1. You missed “avoir Besoin de” , it’s very common ! But I guess you’ve implied its usage in an example for “avoir l’habitude de”

    Reply

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