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Avoir meanings: To Have in French, and more

Celine Segueg

The French verb avoir is one of the most important words in the French language. You’re probably familiar with the common avoir meaning of to have, and probably know that it’s used as an auxiliary verb in compound verb tenses. But what about the other avoir meanings and uses?

In this post we’re going deep on the fundamental French verb avoir. First we’ll give a quick overview of avoir conjugation, along with a mention of general French conjugation rules where avoir plays a central role as an auxiliary verb. Then we’ll move on to the main topic of this post: avoir meanings.

Starting with its main use as to have in French, we’ll go over the verb’s other less-common meanings. We’ll also introduce the meanings of un avoir in French, since we can also use avoir as a noun.

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We should also mention that many French expressions are based around avoir. Enough, in fact, that we created a full post on common avoir expressions in French.

Now let’s get started with this post on avoir meanings!

Avoir: An introduction to this fundamental French verb

Before we even get started on avoir meanings, let’s just do a quick French grammar review of this fundamental verb. We’ll start with its conjugation rules, and then introduce its role as an auxiliary verb.

Avoir conjugation

The French verb avoir is an irregular verb, so its conjugations need to be learned outright. We’ll provide the avoir conjugations in the present tense here so you recognize them all in the rest of the post’s example sentences. We’ll also include the passé composé avoir conjugations in the following section on avoir as an auxiliary verb.

For a the comprehensive set of avoir conjugation tables, please see our dedicated post for all conjugations of the French verb avoir.

Here’s the présent indicatif avoir conjugation table:

j’ai nous avons
tu as vous avez
il, elle, on a ils, elles ont

 

Note that despite its similarity, do not confuse the third-person singular conjugation a with the preposition à. For that word, check out our post on the most common French prepositions.

Avoir as an auxiliary verb

Why is avoir such an important verb in French? Because it forms an integral part of compound conjugations for most of the other verbs in the French language! The English verb to have has a similar status, since it is the sole auxiliary verb for compound conjugations in the English language! What do we mean by this?

In both languages, we conjugate the auxiliary verb and then include the action verb’s participle, creating a compound conjugation of the action verb. The easiest way to demonstrate this is through some examples:

  • J’ai pensé. – I have thought.
  • Tu as grandi. – You have grown.
  • Il a mangé. – He has eaten.

We used the passé composé in these examples, since it’s by far the most common compound tense in French. In each sentence, the auxiliary verb is avoir and to have, while the action verbs are all in participle form.

In order to see the verb avoir as an auxiliary verb, we can look at its own conjugation in the passé composé, since avoir is its own auxiliary verb in the compound tenses! The avoir participle is eu:

j’ai eu nous avons eu
tu as eu vous avez eu
il, elle, on a eu ils, elles ont eu

 

The other seven French verb tenses with compound conjugations are all formed the same way, combining a conjugated form of the auxiliary verb with the action verb’s participle. The takeaway from this section is that avoir is the auxiliary verb for most French verbs. The other auxiliary verb is être, which we go into in our dedicated post on être conjugation.

For a deeper explanation of how to conjugate verbs in French, we’ll refer you to our detailed post on French conjugation.

The verb Avoir: Meanings

Now that we’ve gone over the grammatical aspects of avoir, it’s time to dive into its various meanings! We’ll start with the verb avoir, explaining the nuances in its use.

To have possession

The best overall use of avoir in French is equivalent to the most common uses of to have in English: describing possession. Like in English, this can be possession of some tangible thing, or of some quality or characteristic.

  • Mes parents ont trois voitures. – My parents have three cars.
  • Qu’est-ce que vous avez dans votre sac ? – What do you have in your bag?
  • Le cheval de Johnny a les yeux verts et les nerfs d’acier. – Johnny’s horse has green eyes and nerves of steel.

Note that there’s a big difference in English between the verbs to have and to have to. This is the case in French too. If you want to explore to have to in French, our post on expressing obligation goes into all the details you’ll need.

To exhibit some characteristic

This use of avoir in French doesn’t translate so well as “to have” in English, since it’s rather used to describe some characteristic. The English translation is often simply the verb to be.

  • Vous avez beaucoup de patience. – You have a lot of patience. – You are very patient.
  • Mon Labrador a 32 kilos. – My Labrador retriever is 32 kilograms.
  • J’ai 35 ans. – I am 35 years old.

Note that in the latter examples, some awkward English translations could have still used to have (it has 32kg; I have 35 years). Translating in the other direction using être in the French sentences would be more than awkward, it would be incorrect.

To be in some physical or mental state

Like the previous use of avoir in French, this one is also often better translated into English simply as being, rather than having. This is because technically, the French sentences use nouns to describe a state, whereas in English you prefer adjectives to describe the same states. We provide some awkward literal translations here as examples:

  • Nous avons faim. – We are hungry. – [We have hunger.]
  • Mon chien a peur des orages. – My dog is afraid of storms. – [My dog has fear of storms.]
  • Tu as toujours raison, ma douce. – You are always right, sweetie. – [You always have reasoning, sweetie.]

We look at a number of the most common avoir expressions in our dedicated post, several of which fit into this use of the verb avoir.

To be duped, To be had

This occasional use of avoir has its English counterpart, describing when someone is convinced unwittingly.

  • Les arnaquers professionnels ont bien eu mon grand-père. – The professional swindlers really duped my grandfather.
  • Enfin tu me réconnais dans ce déguisement. Mais je t’ai eu au départ ! – Finally, you recognize me in this costume. But I had you at the start!

Avoir as a noun: Un avoir

Avoir is not just a verb, it’s also a masculine noun. Fortunately for French learners, there are only a couple of meanings of un avoir. Let’s cover them here.

Un avoir: A credit

This first meaning of avoir is a bit more common than the next, and is used primarily in the context of finance to mean a credit. Whether in banking or in other contexts of exchange, un avoir is a positive credit.

  • Le magasin ne donne pas de remboursements, seulement des avoirs. – The store does not give refunds, only credits.
  • Merci pour votre fidelité. Nous vous offrons un avoir de €10, valable sur votre prochain achat. – Thank you for your loyalty. We offer you a credit of €10, valid on your next purchase.

Un avoir: A possession, An asset

Finally, un avoir can also simply refer to general possessions or assets. This use is not so common in everyday speech, though it is used in the business world to list companies’ assets.

  • Tous leurs avoirs étaient perdus dans l’incendie. – All of their belongings were lost in the fire.
  • Cette vieille voiture est mon seul vrai avoir. – This old car is my only real asset.

Conclusion: The many meanings of Avoir

While it’s easy enough to simply consider avoir meaning to have in French, we’ve seen that there are indeed a number of other avoir meanings that are more or less common in the language.

We’ve spent this post looking at these different avoir meanings, both when it’s used as a verb and as a noun. We started with the basics of the verb, reviewing its conjugation and its use as the main auxiliary verb in French compound verb conjugations. Then we got into our avoir meanings.

As a verb, the most common meaning of avoir is indeed to have, though the English translations can definitely change when we start talking about states or characteristics: rather than using to have, some meanings of avoir are best translated with to be. We rounded out our post with the meaning of un avoir, which can refer to possessions or credits.

Remember that many French expressions are built around avoir, so the meanings we’ve seen here don’t necessarily apply in those cases. When using the verb or noun avoir on its own though, you now have a good introduction to its various meanings beyond to have in French!

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