Table of Contents
- I. Grouping These Verbs
- II. The True Raison d’Être of the Maison d’Être
- III. Kinds of Verbs in This House of Being
- IV. Notes on Individual Verbs
I. Grouping These Verbs
A small group of French verbs form their compound tenses with être as the auxiliary verb rather than avoir. The past participle agrees with the subject.
- Elle est partie sans dire un mot. (She left without saying a word.)
They are referred to as the Maison d’Être, which is a joke, because it’s supposed to make you think of the phrase raison d’être = “reason for existence.” The verbs form a sort of house, because they mean such actions as entering, leaving, climbing, descending, and falling, all of which things you can do around a house.
Since I think it is better to understand why these verbs form a group, I disdain to use any such graphic. However, if you wish, you may view various maisons d’être here on Google. (If you are familiar with Tex’s French Grammar, you may wish to check out their l’Alamo d’Être.)
For the same reason I disdain even more strongly the acronym VANDERTRAMPP, each letter of which represents a House-of-Being verb.
Nonetheless, I can’t resist embedding this YouTube video.
II. The True Raison d’Être of the Maison d’Être
Why a Verb Is in the House of Being
All these verbs indicate a movement in a certain direction. Even the four verbs that are not obviously verbs of movement (naître, mourir, devenir, rester) can be explained in these terms.
The key thing is movement-with-direction. A verb indicating simply a type of movement is not a house-of-being verb.
courir. Nous avons couru à toutes jambes. (We ran as fast as we could.)
In contrast, accourir, which means “run up to,” is considered a house-of-being verb:
accourir. Tout le monde est accouru à l’accidenté. (Everyone ran up to the accident victim.)
As for those four verbs that don’t indicate movement-with-direction, here is how I explain them:
Naître and Mourir Justified
We have to allow for metaphor here, or else possess a world view like that of the ancient Celts (in which two separate realms of being exist side by side) or the modern theory of multiple universes.
Metaphorically, birth is a passage out of pre-existence into this, our present existence; death is a passage out of this existence into post-existence (whatever that may be). Hence, the rule (“a House-of-Being Verb Must Indicate Movement with Direction”) is preserved.
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.–Northumbrian noble quoted by Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Devenir and Rester Justified
Devenir, “to become,” requires allowing another metaphor. When one becomes something, one passes from the state of not having that thing, to the state of having it.
- Elle est devenue veuve. (She became a widow.)
The woman has passed out of the married state and into the widowed state.
- Nous sommes devenus riches et célèbres. (We became rich and famous.)
We have passed out of the state of poverty and anonymity, into that of wealth and fame.
Rester means, literally, the opposite of moving away (partir, etc.) and, figuratively, the opposite of a change of state (devenir). Since the verbs indicating departure and change of state are conjugated with être: –
- Elle est sortie de la maison. (She went out of the house = She left the house for a moment.)
- Elle est partie pour Paris. (She left for Paris.)
- Elle est devenue reine. (She became a queen.)
The French linguistic collective unconsciousness has decided that rester will act the same way: in the past, it will be in a “perfective” tense (i.e., the passé composé) and conjugated with être:
- Elle est restée à la maison. (She stayed home.)
- Elle est restée à Abbeville. (She stayed in [the town of] Abbeville.)
- Elle est restée simple citoyenne. (She remained a mere citizen.)
III. Kinds of Verbs in This House of Being
A. –er Verbs
B. A Single –re Verb
C. Verbs of the dormir type
See Dormir-Type Verbs.
C. Verbs Like Venir
D. Other Irregulars
- aller, s’en aller
IV. Notes on Individual Verbs
Aller Is a Mash-Up of Three Different Latin Verbs
Some of the forms of aller look like they belong to an –er verb.
- aller = the infinitive
- nous allons
- vous allez
- allé = the past participle
- j’allais, tu allais, etc. = the entire imperfect tense
Well, they did belong to an –er verb once upon a time, or rather to a first-conjugation Latin verb, ambulare:
- the present: ambulo, ambulas, ambulat, ambulamus, ambulatis, ambulant
- the past participle: ambulatus
- the imperfect: ambulabam, ambulabas, etc.
The –mbu– sequence got entirely squeezed out, leaving just –all– in its place: ambul > all
Meanwhile, the singular forms and the third-person plural form come from the third-conjugation verb vado:
- vado, vadis, vadit, vadunt > vais, vas, va, vont
Finally, the base for the future and conditional (ir-) is derived from the infinitive of a third Latin verb, the highly irregular eo:
- principle parts: eo, ire, ii, itum
See More About Aller
Should these verbs be conjugated with avoir or with être? Insofar as the action is a metaphorical movement-in-a-direction (passage between the visible and the invisible), one might conclude in favor of être; but usage is divided. I quote (while translating) from the TLFi entry on apparaître:
Apparaître can be conjugated with avoir or être, but être clearly carries the day, particularly nowadays, in particular for reasons of euphony (hiatus in the passé composé: a apparu). Some writers use the two auxliaries simultaneously, avoir indicating the action, être the state resulting from the action.
Similarly, in the entry on disparaître, one reads:
The auxiliary used in the conjugation of disparaître est generally avoir; one occasionally encounters the auxiliary être used to emphasize the state.
When it means “to pass by” (in front of), passer is considered a House-of-Being verb.
- Nous sommes passés devant l’hôtel dans notre calèche. (We passed by the hotel in our calèche.)
It can also mean to stop briefly at a place.
- Elle est passé te voir. (She came by to see you.)
Passer also has an important transitive meaning: “to spend (an amount of time doing something)”:
- J’ai passé des heures à raccommoder tes vêtements. (I spent hours patching up your clothes.)
Finally, passer has two pronominal uses, meaning
- “to happen”
- “to do without”
A. Basic Use
The basic meaning of sortir is “to come out of an enclosed space.” Hence it has come to mean, with a human person as subject,
- “to leave one’s dwelling, more or less briefly, to accomplish an action” (an errand, or to see a show, or to eat in a restaurant, or simply to take a walk). It always contains the notion that the person will return when the action is accomplished.
- “to leave a meeting” (usually, when it is over). Whence a noun, la sortie.
The opposite of sortir is rentrer = “to come back inside.”
Sortir avec quelqu’un, with habitual aspect, means “to be dating someone.” (Cf., in older English usage, to “walk out” with someone.)
- Il sort avec Régine Crespin. (He’s dating [walking out with] Regine Crespin.)
How Did Sortir Get This Meaning?
Sortir comes from Latin sortior, sortiri, which means “to cast lots.” Hence it is related to the noun le sort (from Latin sors, sortis), meaning “lot, fate, destiny.”
The path by which sortir came to mean “to come out of an enclosed space” is not clear (although I have my suspicions).
It replaced an earlier verb, issir, from Latin exeo exire. Before it expired, issir gave us issu (in French) and issue (in English).
B. Transitive Use
Sortir has a transitive use, with the meaning “to take out from within an enclosed space.” This use of sortir is conjugated with avoir.
- Il a sorti sa montre de sa poche. (He took his watch out of his pocket.)
- J’ai sorti le chien avant de lui donner à manger. (I took the dog out before feeding it.)
C. Pronominal Use
Based on this transitive use is a pronominal one, se sortir de, meaning “to get oneself out of a difficult situation.”
- Il avait des difficultés financières à cette époque, mais il s’en est sorti. (He had money problems at that time, but got [= managed to get] out of them.)
Verbs Meaning “To Return”
For the one English verb “to return,” French has three (all belonging to the House of Being). They are not interchangeable:
- rentrer. “to come back inside,” and so “to come OR get back home.”2
Quand est-ce que vous êtres rentrés? (When did you return = get back home?)
- retourner. “to go back = to return to a place that is not where you are now.”
Je vais retrourner aux USA en juin. (I am going to return to the US in June. [I am currently in France.])
- revenir. “to come back = to return to the place where you are currently.”
Quand reviendras-tu du bon côté de l’Atlantique? (When will you return to the good side of the Atlantic? [You and the speaker are currently in France.])
- Uncommon. But it did give us, in both languages, the noun “adventure.”
- The complete expression is “rentrer à la maison,” but the prepositional phrase is often left out.