Avoir expressions: French expressions built around the verb Avoir

Celine Segueg

Avoir is one of the most important words in the French language. In other dedicated posts we’ve looked specifically at the various meanings of avoir as both a verb and a noun, as well as covering all of the avoir conjugations. In this post we’re introducing the most important avoir expressions in French.

Most French learners know that avoir means to have in French, but this simple translation only goes so far when it’s used in many common idiomatic expressions. For this reason, it’s best to consider these avoir expressions holistically rather than trying to translate them word-by-word. Let’s dive in and look at the most important French expressions built around avoir!

Scroll to the end for the quick reference table of all the avoir expressions we cover throughout the post.

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Avoir à: To have to

Just like in English when used with the preposition to, adding à denotes an obligation. Nonetheless, the French expression avoir à is used much less often than the equivalent English expression to have to. Several other ways to express obligation in French are much more common.

  • Mon mari a à récupérer nos enfants à l’école à 15:00. – My husband has to pick up our kids from school at 3pm.
  • Tu as juste à nourrir le chat une fois et il t’aimera pour toujours. – You just have to feed the cat one time and he’ll love you forever.
  • J’ai à travailler cette fin de semaine. – I have to work this weekend.

Avoir besoin de: To need to

This expression has a similar meaning to the previous one, but it’s much more common. From un besoin, meaning a need, we get the expression avoir besoin de, meaning to have to or to need to in French.

  • Nous avons besoin de récupérer nos enfans à l’école avant 15:00. – We have to pick up our children at school by 3pm.
  • Le chat n’a pas besoin d’autant de nourriture. – The cat doesn’t need so much food.
  • Vous avez besoin de travailler plus cette semaine. – You need to work more this week.

Avoir envie de: To want, To want to

If we want something, or want to do something, we can use avoir envie de in French. This expression can be followed by a noun, or by a verb in the infinitive form.

  • Notre fils a toujours envie de son père. – Our son always wants his father.
  • Aussitôt arrivé chez mes beaux-parents, j’avais envie de repartir. – As soon as I arrived to my in-laws’ house, I wanted to leave again.
  • Elle a envie d’un café chaque matin. – She desires a coffee every morning.

When we use this expression to talk about something in the future, it often implies some excitement. This is particularly the case when we add adverbs to emphasize how much we want or desire it.

  • Tu prends enfin tes vacances à la mer en août ? / Oui, j’ai tellement envie ! – You’re finally taking your vacation on the coast in August? / Yes, I’m so looking forward to it!
  • Il n’a pas trop envie de finir son doctorat, vu tous les avantages qu’il va perdre. – He’s not really looking forward to finishing his doctorate, given all the perks he’ll lose.

Note that in use, avoir envie de is sometimes confused with the French verb envier, which means to envy.

  • Je t’envie pour ton calme. J’ai envie d’être aussi détendu que toi. – I envy you for your calm demeanor. I want to be as relaxed as you.

Avoir envie: To need to go [to the toilet]

This expression is a variant of the previous one, with the direct object frequently omitted. While it’s still perfectly correct to say avoir besoin d’utiliser la toilette or even avoir besoin de pisser, it’s more common to just rely on context to imply what the need is. The comparable English expression is to need to go.

  • Est-ce nous pouvons arrêter à la prochaine station de service ? J’ai vraiment envie ! – Can we stop at the next service station? I really need to go!
  • Mon chien gratte à la porte arrière quand il a envie. – My dog scratches at the back door when he needs to go.
  • Vers la fin de son discours, j’avais tellement envie [de pisser], que je n’ai plus pu concentrer. – Near the end of his speech, I had to go [pee] so badly that I couldn’t concentrate anymore.

Avoir hâte de, Avoir hâte pour: To look forward to, Can’t wait

Hâte is the French word for haste or hurry. The French expression avoir hâte de can sometimes translate literally as to be in a hurry to, though the better meaning is rather to look forward to. In a lot of contexts, the best English expression is even can’t wait to.

We use avoir hâte de to refer to some action that’s being looked forward to, with de followed by the action verb in infinitive form. We use avoir hâte pour to refer to some thing that’s being looked forward to, with pour followed by a noun.

  • J’ai hâte de rentrer à la maison avant l’orage ! – I’m in a hurry to get home before the storm.
  • J’ai tellement hâte de te voir, Maman ! – I can’t wait to see you, Mom!
  • Le mixologue a hâte d’essayer ses nouveaux recettes de cocktails. – The mixologist is looking forward to trying his new cocktail recipes.
  • C’est très chargé au travail cette semaine. Nous avons vraiment hâte pour vendredi ! – It’s very busy at work this week. We really can’t wait for Friday!
  • Mes enfants ont toujours hâte pour Noël. – My kids always look forward to Christmas.
  • Cette série est excellente. J’ai hâte pour la prochaine saison. – This series is excellent. I’m looking forward to the next season.

Note that we don’t use this expression when describing something done in haste, or hurriedly. The better equivalent is simply à la hâte.

  • Le vendeur a fermé le magasin à la hâte, parce qu’il avait hâte de rentrer chez soi et voir ses enfants. – The salesman closed the store hurriedly, as he was in a hurry to return home and see his kids.

Avoir raison / Avoir tort: To be right / To be wrong

We use these expressions as examples when explaining the various meanings of avoir, since they demonstrate how we use this verb to describe a mental state. These two avoir expressions, meaning to be right and to be wrong, are very common.

  • Pardonne-moi, ma chérie ! Oui, tu as raison. Je l’admets. J’ai tort. – Forgive me, sweetie! Yes, you’re right. I admit it. I’m wrong.
  • Le détective a soupçonné le Colonel Moutarde dans la bibliothèque, mais il a eu tort. – The detective suspected Colonel Mustard in the library, but he was wrong.
  • Si vous croyez que vous avez toujours raison, vous avez tort. – If you believe you are always right, you are wrong.

Avoir l’intention de: To have the intention to, To mean to

In keeping with mental states, this avoir expression is used to state someone’s intent. It is used before another verb in the infinitive form.

  • J’avais l’intention de faire mes devoirs, mais j’ai finis par jouer aux jeux vidéo. – I meant to do my homework, but I ended up playing video games.
  • Ils ont eu l’intention de voler les diamants, mais les police les ont arrêtés. – They intended to steal the diamonds, but the police arrested them.
  • Si je réussi mes examens, j’ai l’intention d’aller à l’université. – If I pass my exams, I plan on going to university.

Avoir l’habitude de: To be used to, To have a habit of

This is one of the avoir expressions that can probably be recognized by English speakers thanks to the similarity of the word habitude, meaning a habit in French. While it can indeed often be translated as to have a habit of, the general meaning of avoir l’habitude de is closer to to be used to.

We use avoir l’habitude de followed by some action verb in infinitive form to state that we’re very accustomed to that action.

  • Notre chef a l’habitude de faire le tour du bureau le matin, donc nous avons l’habitude de faire comme si nous travaillions fort. – Our boss has the habit of making the rounds of the office in the morning, so we’re used to making like we’re working hard.
  • Alex a l’habitude d’escalader des falaises sans protection. Mais pour la majorité des grimpeurs, nous avons l’habitude d’utiliser des cordes. – Alex is used to scaling cliffs without protection. But for the majority of climbers, we’re in the habit of using ropes.
  • Ma chienne a l’habitude de courir dans les champs. Elle n’aime pas quand je la promène en ville, parce qu’elle n’a pas l’habitude de porter une laisse. – My dog is used to running in the fields. She doesn’t like it when I walk her in town, because shes not used to wearing a leash.

If we replace the indefinite article with a possessive adjective, this same avoir expression becomes more of a description of a habit or a custom.

  • Charles a son habitude de servir des bloody Mary les dimanches quand Anaïs vient bruncher. – Charles has the custom of serving bloody Marys on the Sundays that Anaïs comes for brunch.
  • Je ne sais pas si je vais jamais pouvoir vivre avec un copain. J’ai mes petites habitudes, et je vais avoir du mal à les changer ! – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live with a boyfriend. I have my little habits, and it will be difficult for me to change them!

Avoir lieu: To take place

Un lieu is a place. The expression avoir lieu means to take place.

  • Des transactions illicites ont lieu dans plusieurs lieux du quartier. – Illegal transactions take place in several places in the district.
  • Cet événement artistique a lieu tous les premiers vendredis du mois. – This artistic event takes place every first Friday of the month.
  • Ses obsèques ont eu lieu le lendemain de son décès. – His funeral took place the day after his death.

Avoir l’air (de): To look like, To seem

This avoir expression is used to describe appearances. It can be used to describe people or scenes. There are some nuances to its meaning depending on whether it’s used with an adjective, a noun, or a verb. Let’s look at each of these variations here.

When an adjective describes how the subject looks or appears, the construction is avoir l’air + adjective.

  • Tu as l’air triste. Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ? – You look sad. What happened?
  • Ça a l’air très froid en Norvège. – It seems like it’s very cold in Norway.
  • Ces fleurs ont l’air mortes. – These flowers look dead.
  • Cette descente a l’air trop dur pour moi. – That descent appears too tough for me.

When the subject looks like another noun, we use the construction avoir l’air de + noun.

  • Notre hôtesse de l’air a l’air d’une supermodèle. – Our flight attendant looks like a supermodel.
  • Lors du sommet des chefs d’état, le centre-ville avait l’air d’une ville assiégiée. – During the summit of world leaders, the city center looked like a city under seige.
  • Regarde cette nuage-là. Elle a l’air du vaisseau spatiale de Star Trek. – Look at that cloud there. It looks like the spaceship from Star Trek.

When we use a verb to describe how someone or something appears or seems, we use the construction avoir l’air de + [verb in infinitive].

  • Lionel a vraiment l’air d’aimer sa nouvelle trophée dorée. – Lionel sure seems to love his new golden trophy.
  • Le flic a l’air de croire ton histoire. – The cop appears to believe your story.
  • Les nouveaux voiliers ont l’air de voler au dessus de l’eau. – The new sailboats seem to fly above the water.

Avoir de la chance: To be lucky

To be lucky in French is expressed literally here as to have the luck. We use this expression all the time!

  • Ma soeur n’a jamais de la chance avec ses vols. Elle finit trop souvent par passer la nuit dans des aéroports. – My sister never has good luck with her flights. She always ends up spending the night in airports.
  • Ils ont vraiment eu de la chance d’avoir battu l’Argentine dans le premier match. Incroyable! – They were really lucky to have beaten Argentina in the first match. Incredible!
  • Si j’ai de la chance, elle va dire oui. – If I’m lucky, she’ll say yes.

If you’re interested in wishing someone good luck in French, check out our post where we explain the nuances between the two options: bonne chance vs bon courage.

Avoir mal: To be in pain

The French word mal has a lot of different meanings, all of which are negative. When used in the construction avoir mal, we’re talking about feeling pain. This is usually talking about physical pain. We use the preposition à to specify what part of the body is sore or has pain.

  • Premier jour en snow et tu as seulement mal aux fesses ? Moi, j’ai mal partout ! – First day on the snowboard and only your butt cheeks hurt? Me, I’m sore all over!
  • J’ai mangé un piment fort, et maintenant j’ai mal au ventre en plus d’avoir mal à la gorge! – I ate a hot pepper, and now I have a stomach ache in addition to having a sore throat!

Avoir mal au coeur: To feel sick to one’s stomach

This expression is a variant of the previous one, but it can’t be taken literally as having pain in the heart. Avoir mal au coeur is rather the French expression for having a bad stomach ache, or feeling sick to one’s stomach.

  • J’ai vraiment trop mangé. J’ai mal au coeur. – I really ate too much. My stomach really hurts.
  • Je ne peux pas m’asseoir en arrière quand tu conduis. Sinon, je vais avoir mal au coeur. – I can’t sit in the back when you drive. Otherwise, I’ll be sick to my stomach.

Avoir du mal [à]: To have difficulty, To struggle

Unlike the previous expressions, avoir du mal à has nothing to do with physical pain. We use this expression along with the infinitive form of a verb to say what we have difficulty doing.

  • J’ai du mal à croire toutes les histoires qu’elle nous raconte. – I have difficulty believing all the stories she tells us.
  • Tu es trop grande, ma petite. Retourne dans ta poussette. J’ai du mal à te porter dans mes bras ! – You’re too big, honey. Get back in your stroller. I can’t carry you in my arms!
  • L’enseignante a du mal à gérer ses élèves. – The teacher has trouble managing her students.

If our difficulty is with some other situation that isn’t described with a verb, we can replace the à with another preposition to suit the noun we struggle with.

  • Ma soeur a du mal avec les maths. – My sister struggles with math.
  • Cette voiture a du mal sur les pentes, dans la chaleur, et sous la pluie. – This car has difficulty on slopes, in heat, and in the rain.
  • Mon jardin a du mal suite à cette vague de chaleur. – My garden is suffering after this heatwave.

Avoir l’heure: To know what time it is, To have the time

This expression is used to ask for the time, or to talk about knowing the time. It’s just like its English equivalent: to have the time. Note that we’re just talking about what time it is with this expression, not about having time in general. We’ll see that in the next expression.

  • Je n’ai pas l’heure exacte, mais je sais qu’il est tard. – I don’t know the exact time, but I know it’s late.
  • Excusez-moi, monsieur. Avez-vous l’heure ? – Pardon me, sir. Do you have the time?

If you want details on how to answer this question, check out our post for a complete lesson on telling time in French.

Avoir le temps [pour]: To have time [for]

Here’s our French expression for having time for something. If we want to specify having some time, we can switch out le temps for de temps or du temps.

  • Elle est avocate. Elle n’a pas le temps pour avoir des enfants. – She’s a lawyer. She doesn’t have time to have children.
  • Je rêve d’avoir du temps pour lire tous mes livres. – I dream of having time to read all my books.
  • Désolé, mais je n’ai pas de temps aujourd’hui. – Sorry, I don’t have any time today.
  • Si vous avez du temps samedi, pourriez-vous m’aider à démenager ? – If you have some time on Saturday, could you help me to move house?

Il y a: There is, There are

This is a particular use of the verb avoir, used the same way as there is or there are in English to introduce the existence of something. Regardless of the tense, this construction is always only conjugated in this third-person singular, and always preceded by il y.

  • Il y a trois oeufs dans cette omelette. – There are three eggs in this omelet.
  • Il y aura beaucoup de neige dans les montagnes. – There will be a lot of snow in the mountains.
  • Il y avait un corbeau sur sa pierre tombale. – There was a raven on his tombstone.

Il y a: Ago

This expression appears identical to the previous one, but it is used very differently. When we want to express how long ago something happened, we say il y a before stating the duration of time. While the English equivalent is ago, in French the expression needs to come before rather than after the amount of time. We can put adjectives between il y a and the timeframe to add precision.

  • J’ai déménagé en France il y a presque quatre ans. – I moved to France nearly four years ago.
  • Le bus est parti il y a environ deux minutes. – The bus left about two minutes ago.
  • Les colonies ont eu leur indépendance il y a plus de deux siècles. – The colonies got their independence more than two centuries ago.

Conclusion: Avoir expressions

We’ve spent this post introducing a bunch of the most common French expressions built around the word avoir. While some of them indeed bear some similarities to their literal translations, since they start with avoir meaning to have in French, many of them need to be interpreted entirely differently when used as an expression. We provided straightforward explanations for each one, along with loads of fun example sentences demonstrating all of the avoir expressions in use.

Remember that these expressions build on some of our other lessons. Please refer to those posts to learn all the avoir conjugations, and for the various meanings of avoir on its own.

To close, we’ll leave you with a quick reference table with all the avoir expressions we’ve covered in this post. Vous avez de la chance ! – You’re in luck!

avoir à to have to
avoir besoin de to need to
avoir envie de to want, to want to
avoir envie to need to go [to the toilet]
avoir hâte de, avoir hâte pour to look forward to, can’t wait
avoir raison to be right
avoir tort to be wrong
avoir l’intention de to have the intention to, to mean to
avoir l’habitude de to be used to, to be in the habit of
avoir lieu to take place
avoir l’air (de) to look like, to seem
avoir de la chance to be lucky
avoir mal to be in pain
avoir mal au coeur to feel sick to the stomach
avoir du mal [à] to have difficulty [with], to struggle [with]
avoir l’heure to have the time
avoir le temps [pour] to have time [for]
il y a there is, there are
il y a ago