Thursday, April 5, 2012

les verbes avec l'auxiliaire être

I. Verbs conjugated in the present perfect with "to be" as the auxiliary

I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.

--the Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by scientist Robert Oppenheimer, one of the "fathers" of the atomic bomb

You don't hear it much in modern English, but in older English, it was common for some verbs, especially verbs of motion and verbs of change of state, to be paired with "to be" instead of "to have" in the past tense. The above Oppenheimer quote is an example of this: "I am become Death" instead of "I have become Death." In Stephen R. Donaldson's The One Tree, a powerful character named Infelice arrives at a gathering and announces her presence by saying: I am come.

This should alert you to the fact that not all verbs are conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary (i.e., helping verb) "to have." There are verbs that take "to be" as their auxiliary.

II. La maison d'être

In modern French (and in German, too, by the way*), a certain set of verbs is still conjugated in this manner. French teachers teach these verbs in several different ways, but one of the more prominent ways (aside from invoking "MRS. D.R. VANDERTRAMPP"**) is to use a visual aid called "La maison d'être," or "the House of être." See below:

(reference found here)

III. Some quirks of être verbs

As in older English, French être verbs (henceforth "E-verbs") are those that involve motion or a change of state. When you conjugate an E-verb au passé composé, the past participle must agree with the gender and number of the subject. To wit:

Je suis monté(e)
Tu es monté(e)
Il est monté
Elle est montée
Nous sommes monté(e)s
Vous êtes monté(e)(s) (remember, with "vous," this could be singular!)
Ils sont montés
Elles sont montées

Another quirk to remember is that certain E-verbs can also be conjugated with avoir if they're transitive (i.e., transferring their action from the subject to an object or objects; see here for more info). Some E-verbs that can also be A-verbs:

passer: J'ai passé le livre à mon frère. (I passed the book to my brother.)
descendre: J'ai descendu les bagages. (I took down the bags.)
         (Or, more sinisterly) J'ai descendu le flic. (I killed the cop.)
sortir: J'ai sorti la poubelle. (I took out the garbage.)
monter: J'ai monté mon sac à dos. (I've put up my backpack.)

There are others, but you get the idea. If the E-verb is being used transitively, i.e., with an object, then it's actually an A-verb in that context. Be very careful with this!

IV. Les verbes pronominaux et les verbes réfléchis: pronominal and reflexive verbs

There is an entire class of verb that is always conjugated with être: le verbe pronominal. A subtype of this verb is le verbe réfléchi, or reflexive verb. In the infinitive form, such verbs have the pronoun "se" in front of them.

The pronoun se normally means something like "(to) oneself/each other," but sometimes there's no good reason for the se to be there. In such cases, the pronoun se is simply a pronoun and implies no reflexivity. A good example of this is the verb s'apercevoir, to notice/realize, which can be both pronominal and reflexive.

PRONOMINAL: Elle s'aperçoit que son mari n'est pas revenu. (She realizes that her husband hasn't come back.)
REFLEXIVE: Elle s'aperçoit dans la glace. (She notices herself in the mirror.)

Elle s'est aperçue que son mari n'était pas revenu. (She realized her husband hadn't come back.)
Elle s'est aperçue dans la glace. (She noticed herself in the mirror.)

As you see above, the se plays no real role in the pronominal sentence.

Now look at the following reflexive verbs:

Ils se parlent. = They talk/speak to each other.
Ils se sont parlé. = They talked/spoke to each other.

Elles se voient. = They (fem.) see each other.
Elles se sont vues. = They saw each other.

Elle se parle. = She talks to herself.
Elle s'est parlé. = She talked to herself.

Did you notice something? In the above se parler examples, the participle parlé did NOT receive an "e" or an "s"! Why? Because in this instance, the pronoun se is an indirect object. The original verb is parler à [quelqu'un], so parler takes an indirect object. You can see this when parler is used non-reflexively:

Je parle à Jeanne. Je lui parle. (lui = indirect object)
J'ai parlé à Jeanne. Je lui ai parlé. (not "Je lui ai parlée.")
Je parle à Jeanne et Hélène. Je leur parle. (leur = indirect object)
J'ai parlé à Jeanne et Hélène. Je leur ai parlé. (not "Je leur ai parlées.")

Compare this to the past-tense rule for direct objects, where there is agreement in gender and number:

J'ai vu Jeanne hier. (Jeanne = direct object)
Je l'ai vue hier. (the participle is inflected as feminine singular)

Let's look at an example with a reflexive verb:

se donner des cadeaux = to give each other gifts

Ils se donnent des cadeaux. (présent)
Ils se sont donné des cadeaux. (passé composé)

Why not "se sont donnés," with an "s" at the end? Because the direct object is cadeaux, while se (each other) is the indirect object. No agreement necessary.

V. L'intérrogation! (The quiz!)

Ecrivez la bonne locution au passé composé.

1. Elle _____ (se voir) dans la glace.

2. Ils _____ (se donner) des compliments.

3. Il _____ (tomber) de la falaise (cliff).

4. Elle _____ (naître) en 1995.

5. Vous _____ (passer) par le même bâtiment trois fois!

6. Je lui _____ (passer) le sel.

7. Nous _____ (monter) les valises.

8. Elles _____ (descendre) de la montagne.

9. Ils _____ (aller) voir leur famille en France.

10. Tu _____ (sortir) le chien?

LES REPONSES (highlight the space between the brackets to see the answers):
1. s'est vue
2. se sont donné (no "s"!!)
3. est tombé
4. est née
5. êtes passé/passée/passés/passées ("vous" can be sing., pl., masc., fem.)
6. ai passé
7. avons monté
8. sont descendues
9. sont allés
10. as sorti

Vous avez eu 10 sur 10, j'espère...!

*German examples:
Ich bin gekommen. = I have come. (not Ich habe gekommen.)
Er ist gegangen. = He has gone. (not Er hat gegangen.)

**The mnemonic "MRS. D.R. VANDERTRAMPP" is an acrostic for remembering a cluster of être verbs. To wit:

Monter (motion)
Rester (motion, or lack thereof)
Sortir (motion)

Devenir (change of state)
Retourner (motion)

Venir (motion)
Aller (motion)
Naître (change of state)
Descendre (motion)
Entrer (motion)
Revenir (motion)
Tomber (motion)
Rentrer (motion)
Arriver (motion)
Monter (motion)
Partir (motion)
Passer (par) (motion)


Nelly Mednick said...

a mistake was made for "ils se sont donnés - needs an s for plural in the passé compposé ! You forgot the s.....

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the comment, but as I noted in the article, there's no "s" because "se" operates as an indirect object. There's no grammatical agreement when you're dealing with an indirect object.

Example: Pierre is talking to Giselle, who is a college professor. He would say:

Je vous ai téléphoné hier.


Je vous ai téléphonée hier.

despite the fact that Giselle is a woman. The same would apply to plurals. If Pierre is talking to two people, he'd still say:

Je vous ai téléphoné hier.


Je vous ai téléphonés hier.

Why? Because the verb is "téléphoner à." By the same token, it's "donner à [quelqu'un]," not just "donner."

Compris? So—no mistake.

Shirin said...

Should'nt the answer to the 6th one be "suis passé" instead of "ai passé" since passer uses être and not avoir?

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for your comment. I'll ask you to go back to Section III, and reread the paragraph that begins, "Another quirk to remember..."

That ought to answer your question.