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!

Avoir conjugation

Most common conjugations of avoir

Present Future Passé composé
J’ai J’aurai J’ai eu
Tu as Tu auras Tu as eu
Il/elle/on a Il/elle/on aura Il/elle/on a eu
Nous avons Nous aurons Nous avons eu
Vous avez Vous aurez Vous avez eu
Ils/elles ont Ils/elles auront Ils/elles ont eu
Imparfait Conditional Subjunctive
J’avais J’aurais J’aie
Tu avais Tu aurais Tu aies
Il/elle/on avait Il/elle/on aurait Il/elle/on ait
Nous avions Nous aurions Nous ayons
Vous aviez Vous auriez Vous ayez
Ils/elles avaient Ils/elles auraient Ils aient

Imperative (Like some irregular verbs, the imperative form of avoir is based on its present subjunctive conjugation, not presents simple.)
aie (tu)
ayons (nous)
ayez (vous)

Less common conjugations of avoir

These verb tenses aren’t used as frequently in everyday spoken or written French, but they are useful to know – and in many cases, to use:

Plus-que-parfait
j’avais eu
tu avais eu
il/elle/on avait eu
nous avions eu
vous aviez eu
ils/elles avaient eu
Passé simple Passé antérieur
j’eus j’eus eu
tu eus tu eus eu
il/elle/on eut il/elle/on eut eu
nous eûmes nous eûmes eu
vous eûtes vous eûtes eu
ils/elles eurent ils/elles eurent eu
Futur antérieur Futur proche
j’aurai eu je vais avoir
tu auras eu tu vas avoir
il/elle/on aura eu il/elle/on va avoir
nous aurons eu nous allons avoir
vous aurez eu vous allez avoir
ils/elles auront eu ils/elles vont avoir
Conditionnnel du passé
j’aurais eu
tu aurais eu
il/elle/on aurait eu
nous aurions eu
vous auriez eu
ils/elles auraient eu
Passé du subjonctif Imparfait du subjonctif Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif
j’aie eu j’eusse je eusse eu
tu aies eu tu eusses tu eusses eu
il/elle/on ait eu il/elle/on eût il/elle/on eût eu
nous ayons eu nous ayons eussions nous eussions eu
vous ayez eu vous ayez eussiez vous eussiez eu
ils/elles aient eu ils/elles eussent ils/elles eussent eu

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!). 

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! 

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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

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  1. Hi Alysa,

    I really appreciate all your articles. Thank you so much.
    Just a little unintended mistake in this one following -‘ Elle l’a achetée’.
    I think you need to replace the word ‘noun’ with ‘vowel’.
    ( la used here as l’ because it’s followed by a vowel.)

    All the very best to you Alysa,
    From Robyn.

    Reply
  2. It’s wonderful that a whole nation values cats as little as I do:
    “avoir d’autres chats à fouetter “.
    I also thought it was very “PC” of you to not translate it!

    Reply
    • 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
  3. 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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