Using The French Verb Être – Lesson 1 From The Essential French Calendar

The first page of my Essential French wall chart learning tool is devoted to the verb être, “to be” in English. This choice was a no-brainer because être is by far the most important and common verb in French.

The calendar in Kevin's kitchen

Page 1: Être from The Essential French calendar

But are you really using it correctly? Most of the time you probably are, but there is also a good chance that you may be making some mistakes that you are totally unaware of.

The problem: French verb être and English “to be” are not always used the same way

Since all English-speaking learners of French know that être means “to be,” the natural tendency is for them to think of être in terms of “to be.” If être is “to be” then “to be” must be être, right? Wrong.

What happens is something that linguists call overgeneralization. In this case, the tendency to use être the way we use “to be” in English . The end result is often perfectly grammatical sentences that are either strange sounding or have a completely different meaning for native speakers.

The easy stuff: être and “to be” are used similarly

When you want to describe or talk about things or people, you would often use être just as you would use “to be” in English. Here are some examples :

1. L’eau est froide. – The water is cold.
2. Il était dix heures du soir. – It was ten o’clock in the evening.
3. J’ai été malade toute la semaine dernière. – I was sick all last week.
4. Elle sera avec nous dans un instant. – She’ll be with us in a minute.
5. Attention, c’est chaud ! – Be careful, it’s hot.
6. Ils seront contents de vous voir. – They will be happy to see you.
7. On est très satisfaits de leurs services. – We are very satisfied with their services.
8. Soyez prudents. Les routes sont glissantes. – Be careful. The roads are slippery.

These examples are straightforward because être and “to be” function the same way.

The tricky stuff: “to be” and French verb être are not used the same way

This is where the trouble begins. Let’s start with some of the very first phrases that people learn in French

9. – Hello. How are you? – Bonjour. Comment allez-vous ? / Ça va?
– I’m well / good / fine, thank you. – Je vais bien, merci. / Ça va bien, merci.

Here French uses the verb aller instead of être when enquiring about a person’s well-being. Nothing prevents you from saying something like Comment êtes-vous ? This is perfectly good French. It’s just that it would sound strange in this context.

Here are also some well-known cases where French uses the verb avoir “to have” to translate “to be”

10. I’m hungry – J’ai faim.
11. She is thirsty — Elle a soif
12. They’re not afraid of dogs – Ils n’ont pas peur des chiens.
13. I’m 18 years old. – J’ai 18 ans.
14. The building is 5 meters tall. – L’immeuble a 5 mètres de hauteur.

The common beginner mistakes here, of course, are things like: *Je suis 18 ans; *Elle est soif . All of these sound terrible.

Here is something that you will hear on the radio or television:

15. “I’m Jennifer Smith. Here is the news.”

Again, if you try to translate “I’m” and “Here is” with forms of être, you are doomed. A more typical way of saying this in French would be:

16. Ici Jennifer Smith. Voici les informations / Voici le radio-journal

Notice how “I’m” becomes Ici and “Here is” Voici.

When introducing people, French uses s’appeler where English use “to be.” Here is an example:

17. “Hi. I’m Vanessa / My name is Vanessa” — Bonjour, je m’appelle Vanessa.
“Nice to meet you, Vanessa, I’m Madison” — Enchantée, Vanessa. Je m’appelle Madison.

In fact, I’ve devoted a whole blog post on how to introduce yourself and your profession in French.

The forms “there is” and “there are” used to declare the existence of something are usually translated with il y a.

18. There is plenty of money. – Il y a beaucoup d’argent.
19. There is no hope. – Il n’ y a pas d’espoir.
20. There are many rooms available.– Il y a beaucoup de chambres disponibles.

Be particularly careful when translating “to be” followed by past participles. Most of the time, être will be correct but not always.

21. The trial is expected to last five days.. — Le procès devrait durer cinq jours.
22. She’s done for the day – Elle a terminé pour la journée.
23. We’re concerned about the delay – Le retard nous inquiète.
24. I was given 10 days notice – On m’a donné 10 jours de préavis.
25. We were told to leave. – On nous a dit de partir.

Finally, keep in mind that French does not have what in English is called continuous verb forms with the auxiliary “to be.” For the verb “to go, ” these forms include: I am going, I was going, I have been going, I will be going, I will have been going. Here are a couple of examples:

26. Buses and subway are working well – Les autobus et le métro fonctionnent parfaitement.
27. The job is going well. – Le travail va bien.

Conclusion: Use French verbs from the French perspective

There is a lot more to be said about using être that I’ll cover in coming posts. For the time being, I can’t stress enough how important it is, when learning French verbs, to see usage from the French perspective and not from the translation in your native language.

The key French verbs like avoir “to have” pouvoir, “to be able” faire, “to do/make” venir, “to come”, “donner, “to give” and aller, “to go” have many uses that have nothing to do with their primary translations in English.

How to learn all theses uses? One place to start is a good dictionary. Take a moment to look the verb up in the biggest dictionary you can find.

My approach in all my languages is to work with list of trustworthy examples that illustrate the various uses. This is the whole idea behind the Essential French wall chart: a visual tool where I can see the whole array of uses at a glance.

You can do the same thing with flashcards or a notebook where you write down examples that illustrate some of the more unusual uses.

Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at

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