French verb focus: avoir – to have

Avoir‘, meaning ‘to have’, is one of the most common French verbs, and it is irregular in most tenses. It is important to learn it thoroughly, as it is so frequently used. Here is the present tense:

J’ai – I have, I am having
Tu as – You have, you are having (singular, familiar)
Il a – He/it has, he/it is having
Elle a – She/it has, she/it is having
Nous avons – We have, we are having
Vous avez – You have, you are having (plural/polite)
Ils ont – They have, they are having (masculine)
Elles ont – They have, they are having (feminine)

N.B. The masculine ‘ils ont’ must be used for a group of mixed gender (male and female).

Unusual uses

There are several common expressions which use ‘avoir‘ in French, but for which we would use the verb ‘to be’ in English. For example, whereas we say ‘I am frightened’ in English, in French we literally say ‘I have fear’. Here is a list of these expressions with an example of each :

avoir soif – to be thirsty
J’ai soif. Je vais acheter une bouteille d’eau. – I’m thirsty. I’m going to buy a bottle of water.

avoir faim – to be hungry
Tu as faim? Le déjeuner est prêt. – Are you hungry? Lunch is ready.

avoir peur de – to be afraid
Elle a peur des araignees. – She’s afraid of spiders.
Note the irregular imperative (command) form: N’aie pas peur! N’ayez pas peur! – Don’t be afraid! (These are the tu and vous forms respectively.) N’ayons pas peur! – Let’s not be afraid!

avoir envie de – to want
Avez-vous envie de sortir ce soir? – Do you want to go out tonight?

avoir besoin de – to need
Nous avons besoin d’acheter des legumes. – We need to buy some vegetables.

avoir sommeil – to be sleepy
Les enfants ont sommeil. Il faut rentrer à la maison. – The children are sleepy. We must go home.

avoir raison – to be right
Il a raison de vouloir partir en vacances. – He is right to want to go on holiday.

avoir tort – to be wrong
Moi j’ai tort et toi tu as raison. – I am wrong and you are right.

avoir chaud – to be hot
Est-ce que vous pourriez ouvrir la fenêtre? Nous avons chaud. – Could you open the window? We are hot.

avoir froid – to be cold
Elle portait un manteau, alors elle n’avait pas froid. – She was wearing a coat, so she wasn’t cold.

Another common use of the verb ‘avoir‘ is to express age. Whereas we would say ‘I am thirty-five’ in English, the French say literally ‘I have thirty-five years’:
J’ai trente-cinq ans.
Quel âge avez-vous? – How old are you?
Quel âge a-t-il? – How old is he?

If you want to say that you have a pain or ache, you can use avoir like this:
J’ai mal à la tete – I have a headache
Est-ce que tu as mal aux dents? – Have you got toothache?
Elle avait mal aux oreilles – She had earache.
Avez-vous mal à la gorge? – Have you got a sore throat?

If we want to say ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ in French, we use ‘il y a‘:
Il y a de la place pour tout le monde – There is room for everybody.
Il y avait beaucoup de gens – There were lots of people.
Il y aura des problèmes – There will be problems. (This uses the future tense of avoir.)

Il y a‘ also means ‘ago’, for example,
Il y a dix ans j’habitais Paris. – Ten years ago I lived in Paris.

The verb avoir is used as an auxiliary (helping) verb to form the perfect tense or ‘passé composé’ of most other verbs, for example:
J’ai fini – I have finished, I finished
Tu as mangé – You have eaten, you ate
Il a attendu – He has waited, he waited
Nous avons eu – We have had, we had
Vous avez été – You have been, you were
Elles ont fait – They (feminine) have done/made, they did/made.

•With thanks to Elizabeth Allen

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