The verb être is the most commonly used verb in the French language. In English, it translates as “to be.”
It’s also the most famous French verb! You’ve probably seen a photo of René Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images” where the phrase “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) is written underneath the image of a smoking pipe.
Or, maybe you’ve heard the quote “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am) by philosopher René Descartes. So, let’s start thinking about all the different ways you can use être! In this article, we’ll share the six main ways être is used, and show you how to conjugate the verb in six different tenses.
Are you ready to be a French verb expert? Well, in addition to reading this post, the best way to improve your French language skills is through the immersive learning environment of Rosetta Stone!
Table of contents:
- The six different uses of être
- Don’t use être for your age
- How to conjugate être
- Être as an auxiliary verb
- Pronunciation of the verb être
The six different uses of être:
As the most common verb in the French language, être is used to express feelings, characteristics, your location, and more! Knowing how to use être will help you talk about yourself and the people around you.
1. To express a state of being:
One way you can use être is to describe how you’re feeling. Just like in English, French speakers use “I am” statements to describe how they feel physically or emotionally.
- Je suis content / contente. = I am happy.
- Il est fatigué. = He is tired.
- Nous sommes malades. = We are sick.
2. To describe someone:
Another common use of être is to describe the physical characteristics of other people and things. In these cases the other person is the subject of the sentence.
- Il est grand. = He is tall.
- Elle est petite. = She is small.
- Ils sont beaux. = They are handsome.
3. To express possession:
When you want to indicate possession of something, like in the phrase “It’s my car,” être is the verb to use! In these sentences, the person, place, or thing you’re possessing is the subject of the sentence.
- C’est mon chat. = It is my cat.
- C’est le chien de ma mère. = It is my mother’s dog.
- Ce sont mes clés. = These are my keys.
Note: Ce means “it” or “this.” The singular, first person contraction above—C’est—is a combination of “ce” + “est.” In French, it’s common practice to create a contraction between two words when one word ends with a vowel and the next begins with a vowel.
4. To give your location:
In the same way you would say “I am at work” in English, in French you will use être to indicate your location.
- Je suis à Paris. = I am in Paris.
- Il est au travail. = He is at work.
- Vous êtes dans le jardin. = You are in the garden.
5. To tell someone your job or nationality:
Être is also used to tell someone your nationality or what you do for work.
You should note that in French, professions lose their definite article (le, las, les) or indefinite article (un, une, des) and become adjectives when following être.
- Je suis Français. = I am French.
- Il est professeur. = He is a teacher.
- Vous êtes dentiste. = You are a dentist.
6. To express punctuality:
The last most common usage of être is to tell time! Everything from talking about the current time to discussing how late or early someone or something is uses the verb être.
- Quelle heure est-il ? = What time is it?
- Il est huit heures. = It is eight o’clock.
- Je suis en retard. = I am late.
- Il est en avance. = He is early.
Don’t use être for your age
Since sentences with être are very similar to English sentences using “am,” “is,” or “are,” many people assume that they can use être to state their age. But this is actually a big mistake!
In French, it’s appropriate to use the verb avoir when you are talking about your age. So while it may seem odd to say you “have your age,” that’s how it’s done in French!
- J’ai vingt ans. = I am 20 years old.
- Elle a soixante ans. = She is 60 years old.
How to conjugate être:
Now that you’ve seen some examples of être in action, it’s time to learn how être is conjugated in the present, past, and future tenses!
Être in the present tense:
You should already be familiar with être in the present tense, since we used it in all our previous examples. But just to be sure, here are a couple extra examples of être in the present tense:
- Les enfants sont dans la classe. = The children are in the classroom.
- La voiture est rouge. = The car is red.
- Le médecin est là. = The doctor is here.
Être in the passé composé:
In French the passé composé tense indicates actions that are both finite and complete—they happened in the past. It is sometimes referred to as the “finished past.” For the verb être we can think of this as sentences with “was” or “were” in them. Just like many other French verbs, to conjugate être in passé composé, you will use avoir as an auxiliary verb.
When using être in the past tense it’s important to remember that “being” is a continuous state, so être often uses the imparfait conjugation. To help illustrate the difference between the passé composé and imparfait conjugations, let’s look at this sentence: “Last year, I was sick.”
- Passé composé: L’année dernière, j’ai été vraiment malade.
- Imparfait: L’année dernière, j’étais vraiment malade.
In the passé composé tense, the sentence implies that you were sick for a brief period of time. But, in the imparfait tense, you’re implying that you were sick for an extended period of time.
In the end, either tense gets the point across, but it’s up to your judgment as to which one is “more” correct. Generally, using être in the imparfait tense is the right way to go.
You should also remember to have subject agreement when conjugating être in the passé composé. This means if you have an adjective, like content in the example below, you should add an “-e” at the end if the subject is feminine, and an “-s” at the end for plural subjects.
- Masculine: J’ai été content de te voir. = I was happy to see you.
- Feminine: J’ai été contente de te voir. = I was happy to see you.
- Plural: Ils étaient contents de vous voir. = They were happy to see you.
Être in the imparfait:
As we explained above, conjugating être for the past often uses the imparfait tense. This tense describes states of being and actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past.
You’ll most often use l’imparfait to describe things that you used to do regularly, feelings you had, or places you were in.
- Quand j’étais enfant, je jouais du piano. = When I was a child, I used to play the piano.
- Il était content de te voir. = He was happy to see you.
- Nous étions dans la forêt quand il a commencé à neiger. = We were in the forest when it started to snow.
Être in the future tense:
Conjugating être in the future is similar to other French verbs. You will simply drop the ending of the verb and add the appropriate ending. However, as être is a highly irregular verb, the stem word for être in the future tense is ser.
For sentences where you want to express what you “will do” or “will be,” you’ll use the future tense of être.
- Je serai en retard pour la réunion de 14h. = I will be late for our 2 p.m. meeting.
- L’été prochain, ils seront en France pour deux semaines. = Next summer, they will be in France for two weeks.
- Elle sera absente la semaine prochaine. = She will be out next week.
Être in the subjunctive present tense:
In French, feelings like doubt and desire require the subjunctive present tense, as do expressions of necessity, possibility, and judgment. This tense is also referred to as a “mood” since it expresses things that are subjective or uncertain.
Here are a couple examples of subjective ideas using être in the subjunctive present tense:
- Il faut que tu sois gentil(le) avec tes amis. = You must be nice to your friends.
- Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne idée. = I do not think it is a good idea.
- Il est possible que nous soyons en retard. = It is possible that we may be late.
Être in the imperative:
The imperative form is used to give orders or advice to one or more people. The imperative only exists in the tu, nous, and vous forms. To conjugate être in the imperative is the same as for the subjunctive present tense, but the subject pronouns are omitted.
- Sois gentil(le). = Be nice.
- Soyons patients. = Let’s be patient.
- Soyez heureux. = Be happy.
Être as an auxiliary verb
If you’ve read our guide to French verb conjugation, you may remember that verbs in the passé composé require an auxiliary verb to form the tense. Most French verbs use avoir as the auxiliary verb, but there are 17 verbs that use être as the auxiliary verb.
Forming passé composé using être follows the same pattern as verbs that use avoir. First être is conjugated in the present tense followed by the past participle of the verb showing the action. Here are the 17 verbs that use être in the passé composé:
to descend / to go down
descended / went down
to go up
to be born
was / were born
to pass by
to remain, to stay
to come back
to go out
Verbs whose helping verb is être must show agreement of their past participle in gender and number. This means adding an “-e” to the end for feminine subjects, and adding an “-s” for plural subjects.
- Je suis allé au cinéma. = I went to the movies.
- Tu es parti vendredi dernier. = You left last Friday.
- Il est né le 2 avril 1910. = He was born on April 2nd, 1910.
- Je suis allée au cinéma. = I went to the movies.
- Tu es partie vendredi dernier. = You left last Friday.
- Elle est née le 2 avril 1910. = She was born on April 2nd, 1910.
Plural masculine subjects:
- Vous êtes venus nous rendre visite l’année dernière. = You came to visit us last year.
- Ils sont sortis ensemble. = They are going out together.
- Nous sommes arrivés en retard. = We arrived late.
Plural feminine subjects:
- Vous êtes venues nous rendre visite l’année dernière. = You came to visit us last year.
- Elles sont sorties ensemble. = They went out together.
- Nous sommes arrivées en retard. = We arrived late.
Pronunciation of the verb être:
There is a big difference between the pronunciation of “être” in formal conversations or French learning methods, and the way it is pronounced in everyday conversations. So, we’ve put together some examples to help you sound like a native French speaker.
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Typically, “suis” is said with a silent “s” at the end. But when suis is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, you will say a “Z” sound in liaison with the following word.
So, when speaking formally, the sentence “Je suis américain.” (I am American.) is pronounced “Je suis Z-américain.”
In everyday conversations, “Je suis” will be pronounced “shui” with no liaison after. So this same sentence “Je suis américain.” is pronounced “Shui américain.”
Now let’s look at the sentence “Vous êtes à New York.” (You are in New York.)
For the formal pronunciation of this sentence there are two liaisons.
- The first is the silent “S” of “vous.” Just like before this “S” becomes a “Z” sound with “êtes” since it starts with a vowel. You can think of it as “Vous Z–êtes.”
- The second is the silent “S” of “êtes” also becoming a “Z” sound as it goes into “à.”
Altogether the sentence will be pronounced “Vous Z-êtes Z-à New York.”
In everyday conversation, the first liaison on “Vous Z-êtes” is done, but the second, “Z-à,” is not. So, for informal conversations the sentence is pronounced “Vous Z-êtes à Paris.”
Finally take the sentence “Tu es grand” (You are tall).
In a formal conversation, it is pronounced as it’s written. Keep in mind that phonetically, es in French sounds like the long A sound in English, “ay.” The “s” is silent!
But, in everyday conversation, the “U” disappears from “tu” and the “T” blends with “es” forming “T’es grand.” The “s” remains silent.
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