French Lessons: To Be (or not to be) Verbs

This week, my teacher decided that we should brush up on my past-tense skills. In French you either form past tense by combining the verb to have (avoir) with a past-tense verb, or by combining the verb to be (etre) with a past-tense verb. How to decide whether to use avoir or etre?

There are 14 verbs that use etre, and they’re fairly easy to remember because 1.) they all have to do with physical action in some way, and 2.) all but one have opposites:

Entrer/Sortir (to enter/ to exit, go out)
Arriver/Partir (to arrive/ to leave)
Monter/Descender (to go up/ to go down – people use these words to describe going up or down stairs or in an elevator)
Venir/Aller (to come/ to go)
Naitre/Mourir (to be born/ to die — the ultimate to-be-or-not-to-be verbs)
Passer/Retourner (to pass/ to return)
Rester (to stay)
Tomber (to fall)

For some reason they’ve stuck in my head as to-be-or-not-to-be verbs — thanks Hamlet.*

Referring to them as “to-be” verbs makes sense because, literally, they use the verb “to be” in their past tense, but I think saying that they are”not-to-be” verbs also makes sense — these verbs are all opposites. To come and to go. To arrive and to leave. To be born and to die. Seven ways to express what is essentially the same single process. To be and not to be.

I’ve used books and literary references to learn how to do a lot of things (especially in that weird faraway time before YouTube tutorials), so it doesn’t surprise me that when I am trying to learn a different language, the French words make more sense to me if I put them in the context of something I’ve read before. I just wish that this time it was a true crime book rather than stupid Hamlet.

*I am generally quite enraged by Hamlet and I blame it for a lot of things that have happened in recent history. Long story.

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