Everything You Need to Know About être, the Most Common French Verb

Être (to be) is the most common verb in the French language. But that probably doesn’t surprise you. From the time you start learning French, you see, hear, and learn to use and conjugate it. 

Of course, like most frequently-used verbs, être comes with a  lot of exceptional rules and even unexpected  uses. Some of these may seem complicated, but because être is so frequently used, you’ll have ample opportunities to take them in and to practice them, yourself. 

Knowing être well is an essential part of speaking French. So, for today’s article, let’s make être our raison d’ être!

How to conjugate être?

Like most French verbs, être can be used in any tense in the French language. You will find a conjugation chart below.

If you didn’t know it already, the first thing that might strike you when you look at the chart is that, while some verbs are conjugated with être, être is conjugated with avoir in compound tenses.  It makes sense (having a double être could be confusing and would be repetitive, something the French usually hate), but still feels sort of odd. 

One less obvious unusual thing about conjugating être is the verb’s imperative form. Normally, the imperative is derived from a verb’s present simple tense. But when you ask or order someone or something to be a certain way, there’s a wish or hypothetical implied. This means that the imperative form of être is its conjugation in the subjunctive tense.

Also keep in mind that while être is conjugated in the passé composé when talking about temporary situations, it’s most commonly conjugated in the imparfait when talking about past events, since a state of being usually isn’t instantaneous.

Here’s how to conjugate être in its most common tenses:

Present simplePassé ComposéImparfait
je suisj’ai étéj’étais
tu estu as ététu étais
il/elle/on estil/elle/on a étéil/elle/on était
nous sommesnous avons éténous étions
vous êtesvous avons étévous étiez
ils/elles sontils/elles ont étéils/elles étaient
FutureConditionalSubjunctive
je seraije seraisque je sois
tu serastu seraisque tu sois
il/elle/on serail/elle/on seraitqu’ il/elle/on soit
nous seronsnous serionsque nous soyons
vous serezvous seriezque vous soyez
ils/elles serontils/elles seraientqu’ils/elles soient
Imperative (Like some irregular verbs, the imperative form of être is based on its present subjunctive conjugation, not presents simple.)
sois (tu)
soyons (nous)
soyez (vous)

Less common tenses of être

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 été
tu avais été
il/elle/on avait été
nous avions été
vous aviez été
ils/elles avaient été
Passé simplePassé antérieur
je fusj’eus été
tu fustu eus été
il/elle/on futil/elle/on eut été
nous fûmonsnous eûmes été
vous fûmezvous eûtes été
ils/elles furentils/elles eurent été
Futur antérieurFutur proche
j’aurai étéje vais être
tu auras ététu vas être
il/elle/on aura étéil/elle/on va être
nous aurons éténous allons être
vous aurez étévous allez être
ils/elles auront étéils/elles vont être
Conditionnnel du passé
j’aurais été
tu aurais été
il/elle/on aurait été
nous aurions été
vous auriez été
ils/elles auraient été
Passé du subjonctifImparfait du subjonctifPlus-que-parfait du subjonctif
j’aie étéje fusseje eusse été
tu aies ététu fussestu eusses été
il/elle/on étéil/elle/on fûtil/elle/on eût été
nous ayons éténous ayons fussionsnous eussions été
vous ayez étévous ayez fussiezvous eussiez été
ils/elles aient étéils/elles fussentils/elles eussent été

Être as a noun 

Être doesn’t just mean “to be”. If it’s used as a noun, it means “being” – in both the sense of a living thing, or the act of living.

For example: un être humain  – a human being

          un être vivant – a living being

Or: bien- être – wellbeing

You could even use both meanings in the same sentence: L’ être humain a, par sa nature, envie de ressentir le bien- être. – Human beings, by their nature, want to experience wellbeing.

(Note that, while in languages like English, you’d say “a human being” or “human beings,”  in French, the definite article (l’être humain) tends to be used, instead of un être humain or des êtres humains.  That’s because the definite article implies a sort of abstract distance. You could, on the other hand, say “Je suis un être humain.)

Another thing to note: Regardless of a being’s gender, the word être is always masculine. Example: La licorne est un être magique. (A unicorn is a magical being.)

Être as an auxiliary verb (helping verb)

Although most French verbs are conjugated with avoir in the past tense, there are certain cases where être takes over.

Verbs conjugated with être in compound tenses are:

– Reflexive verbs or verbs used in a reflexive sense  (ex: se sentir, se dire). 

Examples: Je me suis dit qu’il mentait. (I told myself that he was lying.)

Elle s’est brossé les cheveux. (She brushed her hair.)

– One of these 17 verbs:

  • devenir (to become)
  • revenir (to come back) 
  • monter (to climb)
  • rester (to stay) 
  • sortir (to leave)
  • passer (to pass)
  • venir (to come)
  • aller (to go)
  • naître (to be born)
  • descendre (to descend)
  • entrer (to enter)
  • rentrer (to re-enter/to return home)
  • tomber (to fall)
  • retourner (to turn around) 
  • arriver (to arrive) 
  • mourir (to die)
  • partir (to leave) 

When I was a French student, my teachers and professors always simply defined these as verbs where actions directly involve the body being displaced or changing its nature in some way. 

But I’ve heard of other French learners memorizing a strange, nonsensical name: Dr. Mrs. P. Vandertramp. If you look at the first letter of each of these verbs, you’ll see that this is what they spell out.

Either method of memorizing them is fine, of course – just pick the one that works best for you.

Unfortunately, memorizing or figuring out which verbs are conjugated with être instead of avoir isn’t the only tricky thing; there’s also remembering to agree the verb’s subject and past participle.

If you have a verb that’s conjugated with avoir , this isn’t an issue. For example, you would keep the past participle of dormir, dormi, regardless of how many people or animals slept, or what their gender is. 

But with a verb conjugated with être in a compound tense, things are more complicated.  

For reflexive verbs

You don’t always have to agree the past participle of reflexive verbs – it depends on whether they’re referring to the subject (person/thing doing the action) or the object (person/thing impacted by the action).

If the reflexive verb has an effect on the object, don’t make the past participle agree with it. If the reflexive verb has an effect on the subject, make it agree with it in gender and number. 

For example, in the sentence Elle s’est brossé les cheveux, an “e” isn’t added to brossé, since it’s not referring to Elle, but to the indirect object, les cheveux. 

On the other hand, in the sentence Elle s’est sentie seule (She felt lonely), se sentir refers to Elle, so it has to agree. 

For the 17 verbs on the list (Dr. Mrs. P. Vandertramp verbs)

Non-reflexive verbs conjugated with être always have to agree with their subject.

For example, let’s take the verb partir.:

Je suis parti. (I left (and I’m a boy))./Je suis partie. (I left (and I’m a girl)).

Tu es parti. (You left (and you’re a boy))./Je suis partie. (You  left (and you’re a girl)).

Alain est parti. (Alain left.)

Céleste est partie. (Céleste left.)

Nous sommes parties. (We left and we’re all girls)

Vous êtes partie (You left and you’re a girl)

Alain et Céleste sont partis. (A mixed male/female group left)

Luckily, many of these verbs are common, so you’ll probably get used to hearing/seeing them conjugated with être. But if you do want to practice, you can do some French Together course exercises, as well as by searching for additional exercises online.

And now that we have all that cleared up, here’s another unexpected twist: Sometimes, even the Dr. Mrs. P. Vandertramp verbs can be conjugated with avoir. It depends on the direct object. 

For example, you typically see sortir conjugated with être, since it refers to the subject, a living being, taking itself out. 

But if you’re talking about taking something out of somewhere, you would conjugate sortir with avoir!

Here’s what I mean: 

Karine est sortie hier soir. (Karine went out last night.)

BUT….

Karine a sorti sa valise du placard. (Karine took her suitcase out of the closet.)

I can tell you from experience that with practice, one day this will click and you’ll understand.  In the meantime, keep practicing and observing.

When not to use être

warning triangle

Depending on your native language (or other languages you speak), there are some cases where it seems logical to use être. But each language has its own logic. Here are a few basic situations where you shouldn’t use être – and what to use instead:

Don’t use être to say how old you are. 

In English, we say “I’m 37 years old.” In French, ça n’a aucun sens (That doesn’t make sense at all). 

Instead, use avoir : J’ai 37 ans; Nous avons 21 ans ; Cette maison a 100 ans, etc.

Don’t use être to say a person feels hot or cold.

In case this has never happened to you, let me explain the hard lesson I learned. If you say Je suis chaud(e) in French, it means you’re all heated up and want to faire l’amour. This expression is very vulgar. If you say Je suis froid(e), it means you’re a cold person, who wouldn’t even consider making love.

Note that this isn’t the case for objects. You can say, for example, Ce tuyau est chaud (This pipe is hot). This means that it feels hot to the touch. But note that if you want to say a place is warm or hot in general (as opposed to a localized area you can touch), you would use faire: Il fait chaud dans cette maison! (It’s hot in this house!)

Instead, use avoir: J’ai chaud and J’ai froid are the right way to express personally experiencing temperature.

Don’t use être with the weather. 

In English, you could say something like “It’s snowy”, “It’s rainy,” “It’s sunny”, “It’s nice” etc.  In French, not so!  You might across an  adjective like neigeux, but this means “covered in snow”, not that snow is falling or that there’s snow all over. For example: Attention! L a route est neigeuse. (Be careful, the road is covered in snow.).

Instead, use faire or a weather verb. Examples: Il fait beau (It’s nice outside.); Il neige (It’s snowing./It’s snowy.) ; Il pleut (It’s raining/It’s rainy), or of course Il fait chaud (It’s hot).

Some common phrases with être

As you can probably imagine, être is used in a lot of expressions. Here are some of the most common and/or useful ones.:

peut-être – maybe. This literally means ‘can be’ and is used with most  tenses. Examples: Tu connais peut- être déjà le mot peut-être’ (Maybe you already know the word peut-être; Il viendra peut-être. (He might come.) 

This literally means ‘can be’ and is used with most  tenses. Examples: Tu connais peut- être déjà le mot peut-être’ (Maybe you already know the word peut-être; Il viendra peut-être. (He might come.) 

bien- être  – wellbeing/wellness. You’ll often see this word on its own, to describe a category of products in a shop or a “centre de bien- être” (wellness center/spa).

ça y est – that’s it. This is a more complicated version of voilà, yet in France, it might just be more common than its one-word equivalent. 

c’est pas grave/ce n’est pas grave – It’s no big deal. Literally, ‘It’s not serious,’ this phrase is used very often in France, whether because someone is trying to be polite or maybe because the speaker is trying to downplay their emotions. The grammatically correct way to write and say it is ce n’est pas grave, but most of the time you’ll hear people of most ages and social statuses say, c’est pas grave.  Example: « Pardon, je vous ai bousculé. » (“Sorry I bumped into you.”) « C’est pas grave. » (“No big deal.”)

être en colère – to be angry. Example: Il est en colère contre tout le monde. (He’s angry at everyone.)

être en route – to be on the way. Example: Vous êtes déjà partis ? Oui, on est en route ! (Have you left yet? Yes, we’re on the way!)

être à l’heure – to be on time.  Example : Oh là là, je ne suis jamais à l’heure ! (Ugh, I’m never on time!)

être au courant – to be aware of something. Example: « Tamara sort avec un nouveau mec. » (‘Tamara’s dating a new guy.’)  « Oui, je suis au courant. » (‘Yeah, I know.’)

être obligé(e) de – to be forced/obligated to do something. Example : J’ai oublié la clé, alors j’étais obligé d’entrer par la fenêtre. (I forgot the key, so I had to come in through the window.)

être bien rentré(e) – to have returned home safe and sound. This expression is used when you check in to see if a friend or family member has returned home, especially if you were just together. Friends and I often exchange texts like this if we were out late: Alors, tu es bien rentrée? (So, are you back home?) 

être dans tous ses états – to be completely beside oneself. 

être de bonne humeur – to be in a good mood.

être de passage – to be passing through. Example: Charles est de passage à Lyon ce soir – on va aller boire un verre ensemble. (Charles is passing through Lyon this evening – we’re going to meet up for a drink.)

être débordé(e) – to be overwhelmed with things to do/swamped. Example: Chef de cuisine et maman de 4 enfants, Hélène est toujours débordée. (A chef and mother of 4 kids, Hélène is always swamped.)

être en forme/être en pleine forme – to be feeling good/great. 

être en panne – to be broken down. Example: Sa voiture est en panne. (His car broke down.)

être impatient(e)(s) de… – to be eager to…/can’t wait to…./to be looking forward to…. This is a very hard phrase for us native English-speakers to master, since it seems to imply a lack of patience and thus be a bit rude, but it’s perfectly polite and really does mean that you’re really looking forward to something. Example: Nous sommes impatients de te voir. (We can’t wait to see you.)

Il est interdit de – It’s forbidden to…./strictly forbidden.  Ex : Il est interdit de conduire sans permis. (Driving without a permit is strictly forbidden.) 

être en train de – to be in the process of doing something. Examples: Je n’ai rien entendu; j’étais en train de passer l’aspirateur. (I didn’t hear anything ; I was vacuuming.) ;Paul et Pauline sont en train d’écrire une pièce de théâtre. (Paul and Pauline are currently writing a play.)

être nul/nulle (en) – to be bad (at something). Because the French aren’t generally as sensitive to obscenity as some other cultures, depending on the context/speaker, this can also translate to: “to suck (at)” or “to be crap (at)”. Example: Oh non ! J’ai oublié l’anniversaire de Paul! Je suis nulle ! (Oh no! I forgot Paul’s birthday! I’m a terrible person OR I suck!).  You can also add what you’re bad in/what you suck at, by using en + noun. Examples: Rodolphe est nul en maths. (Thomas is bad at math/Thomas sucks at math./Thomas is crap at maths.) ; Serge et Margot sont nuls en sport. (Serge and Margot are bad at sports./Serge and Margot suck at sports./Serge and Margot are crap at sport.)  

n’y être pour rien – to have nothing to do with something. Example: « Dis donc, Harold, tu ne saurais pas qui a mangé mon gâteau ? » (“Say, Harold, you wouldn’t know who ate my cake, would you?”) « Pas moi ! Je n’y suis pour rien. » (“Not me! I had nothing to do with it!)

soit…soit – either…or . This is one of several ways to express a choice between two options in French. It can be used with nouns, like so: Cette robe est disponible soit en rose, soit en vert. (This dress is available either in pink or green.) It can also be used with clauses. In this case, each “soit” introduces a separate clause whose verb is usually conjugated in the present simple tense. For example: Soit on mange chez Kelly ce soir, soit on reste à la maison. (We can either eat at Kelly’s tonight or stay at home.)   

Soit. – So be it. This isn’t used very often in modern, everyday French, but if you like historical books or movies, or sci-fi movies or video games where a great leader is making big decisions, you will come upon it quite often.  Example: « Si on tue le dragon, notre château sera sans défense ! » (If we kill the dragon, our castle will be defenseless!) « Soit» (“So be it.”)

n’est-ce pas ? – isn’t it?/don’t you think?/isn’t that so?/right?– This phrase is somewhat known even to non-French speakers. It’s not used extremely often in France today, though, and when it is, it has a slightly formal tone. It’s more common to simply hear non? instead. Here are two correct ways to say the same sentence: Il vient avec nous ce soir, n’est-ce pas?/Il vient avec nous ce soir, non ?  (He’s coming with us tonight, right?). The first sentence is more formal than the second.

avoir été – an informal way to say être allé(e) (went), used only in spoken everyday French.   When we learn about être, we’re taught that avoir été is used to talk about a temporary state. For example, Pour un instant, elle a été la plus belle fille de l’école…puis sa sœur est arrivée. (For a moment, she was the most beautiful girl in school…then, her sister arrived.)

But in informal spoken French, you’ll also hear many people use avoir été to explain that they went somewhere. This phrase is grammatically incorrect; it should be être + allé(e)(s), which most French people still use. Still, in an informal, oral context, these phrases have the same meaning: Je suis allée à la piscine hier./J’ai été à la piscine hier. (I went to the swimming pool yesterday.)

Note that with avoir été, there’s no verb agreement, since être is conjugated with avoir. On the other hand, since aller is conjugated with être, you have to make sure its past participle agrees with the subject.

If you don’t feel comfortable with using avoir + été, don’t worry – as I’ve said, it’s very informal and not all French people use it. And If you’re in a formal or neutral context and/or want to appear educated or professional, definitely don’t use it. 

Common idioms with être

anemone fish
Être comme un poisson dans l’eau (to be like a fish in water) = to completely fit in an thrive in a place or situation

Here are a few common idiomatic expressions with être that you’ll hear a lot in France.:

C’est trop beau pour être vrai. -It’s too good to be true. 

être à deux doigts de… – to be close to doing something. Ex: Qu’est-ce qu’il m’énerve ! Je suis à deux doigts de lui casser la gueule ! (He makes me so mad! I’m getting really close to beating the shit out of him!) 

être à l’aise dans ses baskets ; être bien dans ses baskets/pompes – to be comfortable in your own shoes. In other words, to be comfortable in your own skin. 

être comme chien et chat – to not get along well. Example : Plus jamais je n’inviterai Pauline et Océane chez moi en même temps; elles sont comme chien et chat ! (I’ll never invite Pauline and Océane to my house at the same time again; they fight like cats and dogs.)

être comme les deux doigts de la main – to be thick as thieves/to get along swimmingly. Not to be confused with the other deux doigts expression on this list.

être comme un poisson dans l’eau – to completely fit in an thrive in a place or situation. Example: Il y a des gens qui n’aiment pas les villes – trop de monde, trop de bruit. Mais à New York, Brigitte se sent comme un poisson dans l’eau. (There are people who don’t like cities – too crowded, too much noise. But Brigitte feels right at home in New York.)  In English, interestingly enough, we have the opposite expression : a fish out of water is someone who’s a bit out of place in a new/strange environment.

être habillé(e) comme un sac – To be dressed in an inelegant, unflattering way. Literally, “to be dressed like a sack”. Example: Non mais tu as vu Angelique ? Sa robe est trop grande et super-moche ! Elle est habillée comme un sac ! 

être noir de monde – to be very crowded/packed. I love this expression because of its imagery: You can easily picture a crowd of people like a mass of blackness in a room. Example:  J’ai fait les soldes ce weekend. Les grands magasins étaient noirs de monde ! (I did some shopping during the sales this weekend. The department stores were packed!)

être un drôle de numéro – to be weird, odd, quite a character. Example: Cette Alice est un drôle de numéro ! (That Alice is quite a character!)

être un sacré numéro (what a guy/girl !).

être sur son trente-et-un – to be dressed to the nines (dressed in one’s best clothes).

Il était une fois – Once upon a time… (the phrase that begins a traditional fairytale). Example: Il était une fois une belle princesse qui rêvait de devenir chevalier. (Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who dreamt of becoming a knight.)

C’est la vie – That’s life. You can read all about this iconic French saying here. 

une raison d’être – the purpose of someone or something’s existence. Literally: “reason for being”. Example: La vengeance était sa raison d’être. (The purpose of his life was vengeance.) 

C’est pas mal/Ce n’est pas mal – It’s/That’s not bad. For the French, who generally prefer to keep their emotions and reactions tastefully understated, this is usually the equivalent of “It’s/That’s really good!” Example: « Goûte-moi ce gâteau, qui est considéré comme le meilleur de toute la France! » « Maim…c’est pas mal ! » (“Have a taste of this cake, which is supposed to be the best in France.” “Yum…not bad” (in other words, “Yum, that’s delicious!”)).

Note that this expression is often said and without the “n”, by French people of all ages and most social statuses. But if you’re writing a formal document/letter, or are in a formal or professional setting, the grammatically correct ce n’est pas mal is what you should use.

You can find so many more phrases and idiomatic expressions with être on this impressively extensive Word Reference list.

Hopefully this post has given you a better understanding of être. If some of the rules and exceptions of this important verb have left you feeling a bit overwhelmed, c’est pas grave. With practice and observation, you’ll catch on and soon, when it comes to using it, tu seras comme un poisson dans l’eau !

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. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

4 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About être, the Most Common French Verb”

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