French verb focus: être, ‘to be’

French verb focus: <i>être</i>, ‘to be’

Être is a very common and, unfortunately, very irregular French verb, that is worth learning thoroughly.

Present tense

Je suis – I am
Tu es – You are (singular, familiar)
Il est – He/It is
Elle est – She/It is
Nous sommes – We are
Vous êtes – You are (polite, plural)
Ils sont – They are (m.)
Elles sont – They are (f.)

Ils sont‘ must be used for a group of mixed gender.

The imperative (command) form is irregular:
Sois sage (tu form)/soyez sage (vous form) – be good
Soyons sages – Let’s be good.

Some verbs use être as the auxiliary to make the past tense:

arriver – to arrive
Ils sont arrivés à six heures. – They arrived at six o’clock.

partir – to leave
Elle est partie hier soir. – She left last night.

entrer – to enter
Je suis entré sans demander la permission. – I went in without asking permission.

sortir – to go out
Nous sommes sortis tous les jours.  We went out every day.

aller – to go
Vous êtes allés au cinema? – Did you go to the cinema?

venir – to come
Tu es venu en taxi. – You came by taxi.

monter – to go up or get on a vehicle
Il est monté jusqu’au dixième étage. – He went up to the tenth floor.

descendre – to go down or get off a vehicle
Elles sont descendues du train. – They (feminine) got off the train.

naître – to be born
Les jumeaux sont nés la semaine derniere. – The twins were born last week.

mourir – to die
Il est mort sans que je sache. – He died without my knowing.

rester – to stay
Vous êtes restés longtemps en France. – You stayed in France for a long time.

tomber – to fall
Je suis tombé dans la rue. – I fell in the street.

retourner – to return
Nous sommes retournés le mois passé. – We returned last month.

These are the basic thirteen verbs, but there are a few derivatives of these as well:

devenir – to become
Tu es devenu paresseux. – You have become lazy.

revenir – to come backward
Je suis revenu parce que je suis fatigué. – I have come back because I am tired.

rentrer (à la maison) – to go home
Vous êtes rentrés par le train. – You went home by train.

Etre is also used as the auxiliary to form the passé composé of all reflexive verbs, as in these examples:

Je me suis levé à six heures. – I got up at six o’clock.

Tu t’es amusé en vacances? – Did you enjoy yourself on holiday?

Il s’est habillé vite. – He got dressed quickly.

Nous nous sommes réveillés tard. – We woke up late.

Vous vous êtes faché de moi. – You got angry with me.

Ils se sont mariés l’année dernière. – They got married last year.

The phrase ‘est-ce que’ can be placed in front of a sentence to change it into a question, for example:

Est-ce que vous voulez déjeuner maintenant? – Do you want to have lunch now?

The phrase ‘n’est-ce pas‘ pas can be used as a question tag at the end of a sentence, e.g. Il fait beau aujourd’hui, n’est-ce pas? – It’s lovely weather today, isn’t it?
Nous allons partir demain, n’est-ce pas? We’re going to leave tomorrow, aren’t we?

Être is the only verb that is irregular in the imperfect tense. The imperfect of être is J’étais – I was, I used to be, for example:

Nous étions heureux quand nous habitions à la campagne. – We were (used to be) happy when we lived in the countryside.

Il était une fois… – Once upon a time…

The future of être is je serai – I will be, e.g. Vous serez heureux. – you will be happy.


Here are a few more examples of sentences where être is used, sometimes unexpectedly:

Nous sommes douze à vouloir partir. – Twelve of us want to go.

Nous sommes le 27 octobre. – It’s the 27th October.

Il ne sera pas du voyage. – He won’t be going.

Tu en es? – Are you taking part?

Seras-tu des nôtres demain? – Will you be coming with us tomorrow?

Nous étions à la page 36. – We were up to page 36.

Il est des gens qui aiment se moquer des autres. – There are people who like to make fun of others.

C’est toi qui le dis! – That’s what YOU say!

Ce n’est pas qu’elle soit belle. – It’s not that she’s beautiful.

Ce n’est pas moi, n’est-ce pas, qui vais leur dire. – I’m certainly not going to tell them.

Être humain – human being

Elle l’aimait de tout son être. – She loved him with all her heart.

With thanks to Elizabeth Allen

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