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A few questions about French "to be"

I'm a bit confused about this but from what I understand from duolingo, the word "être" means "to be" and can be used when describing inherent or temporary characteristics (correct me here if I am wrong, because I'm not 100% sure).

My confusion comes from the fact that my second and third languages are Spanish and Portuguese. In these languages, there are two words that translate into "to be": "ser" and "estar" (they're the same words in both languages). While "ser" is typically used for permanent or inherent traits, "estar" is used for temporary/physical conditions. On top of this, you can use different verbs to describe how someone is feeling or what the weather is like, etc.

I guess what I'm trying to ask is in French, how do you differentiate between an inherent characteristic and a temporary one if you are using the same word?

When you say "Elle est froide" does that mean "She is (feeling) cold" or "She is cold (personality-wise)" or could it be both?

How would you say "It's cold (outside/inside)" and would this be different than saying simply "It (some object) is cold"? And when talking about an object, for example, would saying "Il est froid" mean being cold is a permanent characteristic (like "ice is cold") or a temporary one ("the coffee is cold").

PS. I think it's similar in Italian (a language I also want to learn), where you have one word for "to be". If someone also knows Italian, can you explain what I wrote above too?

PSS. If anyone who knows how/why Spain and Portugal developed two words for "to be" and Italy and France only developed one, that would also be very interesting to know.


April 17, 2015



French is my second language, so I might not be correct, but I'll give this a try.

First of all, you would use the verb 'faire' to describe the weather. Il fait froid, ou il fait chaud, would be referring to the temperature outside.

Secondly, you do use different verbs to indicate whether cold is a temperature or a personality trait. In your example, elle est froide, the use of être indicates you are referring to her personality. If you wanted to say she was cold in temperature, you would use avoir, elle a froid. But it gets even more complicated than that...

I found a link that explains this all in more detail:



On top of it "elle est froide" can be about any feminine thing: la théière est froide - elle est froide (the teapot/it is cold).

And "être" is also the required auxiliary to build compound tenses for a number of verbs like movement verbs (aller, venir, monter, descendre, partir) and all reflexive verbs.


Thanks for the link, it cleared some things up, but what about other words besides hot/cold? For example: "I am bored" vs. "I am boring". In Spanish, you would use the same word for "bored/boring" and change the verb. In what cases would you generally use "être" and when would you use some other word that means "to be" (apart from the hot/cold situations explained in the link)?


J'ai ennui = I am bored. Je suis ennuyeuse = I am boring.

If you want a general, ballpark ruling, I would say that one has an emotion or quality, but is an adjective. On the other hand, I think "Il a charme" would be synonymous with "Il est charmant."


If I may... I am bored would be 'je m'ennuie' ('j'ai ennui' is incorrect). He's charming would be either 'il a du charme' or 'il est charmant' as you said, although I think there's a very slight nuance in meaning, there - I would translate 'il a du charme' as 'he has a certain charm about him' and 'il est charmant' as 'he's lovely/nice'. Native French speaker here. :)


Color me embarrassed. Thank you for correcting my errors. As you may have guessed, French is my second language!


That makes sense. Thanks!


Italian also uses their verb "avere" or "to have" similarly to the French "avoir" to say someone is cold or hot when talking about temperature. Yet, Italian is in between, because they also have "essere" and "stare".

http://italian.about.com/od/verbs/a/italian-verb-avere_3.htm http://italian.about.com/library/verb/blverb_stare.htm http://italian.about.com/od/verbs/a/italian-verb-essere.htm http://dictionnaire.reverso.net/anglais-italien/to%20be But wait, you can look up specific expressions in Spanish or Portuguese and see how they would be in French or Italian with this dictionary. http://diccionario.reverso.net/ http://diccionario.reverso.net/espanol-italiano/està%20frio/forced http://diccionario.reverso.net/espanol-italiano/ha%20calor In Spanish too, they use "to have" for this: http://diccionario.reverso.net/frances-espanol/J%20ai%20chaud http://dicionario.reverso.net/portugues-frances/ You can change the base language on the top right and see which languages you can translate back and forth from. This dictionary has more languages back and forth from French. What is your original language?

Now, when you get to English there really is only one verb "to be" used for both situations and you would use the verb "now" or some other indication of time to show that it is a temporary condition. She is happy now. He is not happy at this time. She was happy, but now she is not. Today, he is very enthusiastic about his new car.

You can also use the verb to become to indicate a recent change and in French that is "devenir". Il devient artistique. He is becoming artistic. He wasn't before.


I'm assuming that English is your first language. English has this same system of one to-be verb. How do you tell the difference in English? Why would these same strategies not work?

This should answer your question as to why. Basically, Latin had three verbs that might be used in the same way we might use to mean "to be". As Latin evolved into Vulgar Latin and later the Romance languages, these verbs changed, were reduced to two, and came to be used in different situations. The Spanish "ser" and "estar" came from the Latin verbs "esse"(to be) and "stare"(to stand), respectively. Italian stayed closer to the original practice of using "esse" for a wider variety of meanings, and French combined the two into one, "être", leading to a conjugation that has similarities to both "esse" and "stare".


I guess in French 'être' pretty much always means 'to be', as in a literal state of being. It doesn't matter if the state is permanent or temporary.

With that in mind, 'elle est froide' literally means just that: 'she is cold' (personality-wise) or 'it is cold' if you're talking about, for instance, a table (think about a marble table). A feeling, as someone mentioned, is often translated with 'to have' - 'she is cold' as in 'she's feeling cold' would be 'elle a froid'.

'It is cold outside' would be 'il fait froid'. Again, saying 'il est froid' would be the literal state of something being cold, permanently or temporarily so.


"Elle a froid" would be she is cold, and "Elle est froide" would be she is a cold person. I am sure it's been mentioned, but outside would be "Il fait froid" whereas an object "est froid".

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