French auxiliary verbs

Les vebres auxiliaires en français

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French auxiliary verbs at Language Easy! They are also called helping verbs because they “help” bringing nuances in the conjugation of other verbs by forming the composed tenses, the passive voice… They’re pretty useful and you’ll see them quite a lot; this lesson will help you through with them.

Allez, on y va !


What are French auxiliary verbs ?

Que sont les verbes auxiliaires ?

French auxiliary verbs are verbs that can be conjugated in association with another verb to express a nuance in the action of that verb, which in this context is referred to as the lexical verb (le verbe lexical).

In such a construction,

  • the auxiliary comes first and can be conjugated;
  • the lexical verb comes last and is always at impersonal form (infinitive or participle).

Note that French auxiliary verbs are normal verbs that are used as auxiliaries, and in this process they loose part of their original meaning. To illustrate this, let’s consider a simple example (first without an auxiliary) :

  • Je lave ma voiture tous les dimanche.
    I wash my car every Sunday.

The auxiliary être can be used to express the action from the point of view of the car, at the passive voice :

  • Ma voiture est lavée tous les dimanches.
    My car is washed every Sunday.

Or, we can use the auxiliary verb avoir to make a compound tense and situate the action in a different time (past or future) from the time of the enunciation:

  • J’ai lavé ma voiture dimanche.
    I have washed my car on Sunday.

Another way to do this is to use the auxiliary aller :

  • Je vais laver ma voiture dimanche.
    I will wash my car on Sunday.

We can also use the auxiliary faire to express the intention of having someone do it:

  • Je fais laver ma voiture tous les dimanches.
    I have my car washed every Sunday.

And so on…

Auxiliaries and semi-auxiliaries

Auxiliaires et semi-auxiliaires

French auxiliary verbs are divided in two categories :

  • The auxiliary verbs être and avoir which are used for the formation of the compound tenses and the passive voice;
  • The semi-auxiliary verbs: all the other ones, including aller (to go), venir (to come), pouvoir (to be able to), devoir (to have to), laisser (to let)…

In this article, we will talk only about the main auxiliaries être and avoir; we dedicated another lesson to the semi-auxiliary verbs.

Compound tenses

Les temps composés

For each simple tense, we can construct a corresponding compound tense (temps composé) by conjugating the auxiliary être or avoir at that tense, and adding the past participle of the verb after it.

Example with the verb aimer (top love) :

  • Infinitive present → infinitive past
    aimer → avoir aimé
    to love → to have loved
  • Indicative present → narration tense
    Tu aimes→ Tu as aimé
    You love→ you have loved
  • simple future → anterior future
    Il aimera→ il aura aimé
    He will love→ he will have loved

Note the similarity between the French auxiliary verbs and the English construction.

Generally though, the compound tenses are not presented along with their corresponding simple tense, but as a separate tense. It doesn’t really matter, as each tense has its own signification, but it’s good to have that understanding. In all the conjugation tables (that we give under the conjugation section in the left menu), the simple and corresponding compound tenses are presented one next to the other. Go have a look to the conjugation tables of the first group verbs for example if you want to get the feeling.

I also want to make a remark here about a very common construction called the near future (futur proche), that I used as an example before without naming it:

  • Je vais sécher mes cheveux.
    I am going to dry my hair.


It looks like a compound tense, and actually has the name of a tense, but grammatically it is only a construction with the semi-auxiliary aller. This is why it’s never given in the conjugation tables. We talk more about it in our article about semi-auxiliaries.

Choosing the right auxiliary: être or avoir?

Choisir le bon auxiliaire: être or avoir?

The choice of the auxiliary to use at the compound tenses depends of the verb : the majority of  the verbs are always conjugated with avoir, others are always with être. The right auxiliary to choose is indicated in the conjugation tables, but is there a way to decide safely, if we don’t already know? Of course, yes.

Use the auxiliary avoir with:

  • être and avoir themselves
  • all transitive verbs
  • all impersonal verbs
  • most of the intransitive verbs

Examples :

  • J’ai été papa. (être), j’ai eu une fille. (avoir)
    I was a dad, I have had a girl
  • J’aurai mangé une part de tarte (transitive verb)
    I will have had a piece of pie
  • Il a plu. (impersonal verb)
    It has rained.
  • Nous avons voyagé en Irlande du nord. (intransitive verb)
    We have travelled to Northen Ireland.

Use the auxiliary être with:

  • the passive voice
  • all pronominal verbs
  • some intransitive verbs that express an idea of movement or transformation. The main ones are aller (to go), arriver (to arrive), décéder (to pass away), devenir (to become), échoir* (to ground, a ship), mourir (to die), naître (to be born), partir (to leave), rester (to stay), tomber (to fall out), venir (to come), descendre* (to go down), passer* (to pass by), entrer* (to enter), retourner* (to go back), sortir* (to go out).

Let’s give some examples:

  • Vous vous êtes regardés? (pronominal verb)
    Did you look at yourself?
  • Je suis parti à minuit. (intransitive verb)
    I left at midnight.

Note that some verbs can be pronominal or not, transitive or not according to the context, and so they must be conjugated with être or avoir accordingly. It’s the case for a few verbs of that list (I indicated them with an asteriskm *). For example:

  • J’ai retourné ma chemise. (transitive → avoir)
    I turned my shirt inside out.
  • Je me suis retourné pour voir derrière moi. (pronominal → être)
    I turned myself to look behind.
  • Je suis retourné à Genève. (intransitive → être)
    I went back to Geneva.

Also, although not a very important thing to know about French auxiliary verbs, a (rare) minority of verbs can be conjugated with either être or avoir even though they’re intransitive, but with a difference in the meaning. In this case, the use of être insists on the result of the action, while using avoir insists on the action itself. For example, stationner (to park one’s car) or déménager (to move to a new house).

  • J’ai stationné devant chez toi.
    I parked in front of your house.
  • Je suis stationné devant chez toi.
    I am parked in front of your house.

Using various auxiliaries

Utiliser plusieurs auxiliaires

As an auxiliary verb helps introducing a nuance in the conjugation of a verb, we can imagine combining auxiliaries to introduce more than one nuance. To put it differently, French auxiliary verbs can be stacked. Just consider the verb and its auxiliaries as a “big” verb that can go through the whole process again:

  • J’avais du faire un détour à cause des embouteillages.
    I had had to make a detour because of the traffic jam.

When it’s only about composing tenses with être or avoir, this is called sur-compound tenses (compound more than once):

  • Quand tu auras eu été à Paris, tu me diras si tu auras changé d’avis!
    When you will have been to Paris, you’ll tell me if you will have changed your mind!

Even if you won’t probably make such sentences before you get close to fluency in French, it’s good to be able to recognize and understand them.

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lesson about French auxiliary verbs. With time, you will integrate this to your practice. For now, you can deepen your study on the subject with our related article about semi-auxiliaries!

Allez, à bientôt !

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