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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Candice here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I'll answer your most common French questions.
The question for this lesson is Why do some verbs sometimes use être and sometimes use avoir to make passé composé?
As you might remember, some verbs in passé composé are conjugated with être instead of avoir. These verbs are our “Dr. &Mrs. Vandertramp” verbs. “Dr. &Mrs. Vandertramp” is an mnemonic device for remembering the verbs conjugated with être. They are verbs associated with movement and change. But sometimes you will see a Vandertramp verb conjugated with avoir instead. Why?
It all has to do with meaning. If you are talking about the subject moving or changing, use être. You use avoir as your auxiliary verb when there is an object involved. Let’s take a look and see how the meaning changes with some examples.
Je suis sorti(e) le soir means “I went out for the night.” J’ai sorti les valises means “I took out the suitcases.” Because the action is happening to the suitcases, you use avoir.
Je suis monté(e) means “I went up (to the next floor)” while J’ai monté les valises means “I brought up the suitcases.”
And Je suis descendu(e) du train. means “I got off the train.” J’ai descendu les valises means “I brought down the suitcases.”
Je suis rentré(e) means “I came back home” while J’ai rentré les chiens means “I brought in the dogs.”
Je suis retourné(e) à la ville means “I came back to the city” while J’ai retourné la table means “I turned the table over.”
Here’s a tricky one, Je suis monté(e) dans l’ascenseur. J’ai monté l’escalier. The first means “I went upstairs in the elevator.” And the second means “I took the stairs up.” So be careful!
Passer is a special verb, because the meanings are very different.
Je suis passé(e) par la librairie means “I passed by the bookstore.” or “I went by the bookstore.”
J’ai passé l’été à Dakar means “I spent the summer in Dakar.”
If you want to describe movement, use être to conjugate passer. If you want to talk about figurative passing, like passing time, use avoir. For example, Elle est passée par la porte means “She went out through the door.” And Elle a passé le weekend avec son copain means “She spent the weekend with her boyfriend.” Finally, Il m’a passé le sel. Means “He passed me the salt.”
So remember that if you conjugate with avoir, the action is happening to a direct object. If you use être, the action is happening to you.
Pretty neat, right?
If you have any more questions, please leave a comment below!
A bientôt, see you soon!