Why is avoir used instead of être when expressing/referring to age?


  • Il a 16 ans
  • J'avais 6 ans

If I'm not mistaken, these literally translate into "He has 16 years" and "I had 6 years".

Why not "Il est 16 ans" and "J'étais 6 ans"?

3 Answers 3


Just to get a feeling for why such a meaning is possible, you can take it as meaning

I have 16 years (of age under my belt).

or think of it as similar to the past perfect tense in English (have+past participle), which links past and present

I have (aged for) 16 years (and this is me now)

If we take "copula" as the fancy term for "to be", and look around other languages:

  • French "to have": "J'ai N ans."
  • Spanish "to have": "Tengo N años."
  • Italian "to have": "Ho N anni."
  • Latin "copula": "N annos natus sum."
  • English "copula": "I'm N (years old)."
  • German "copula": "Ich bin N Jahre alt."
  • Japanese "copula": "十六才です。"
  • Korean "copula": " 열여섯 살입니다"
  • Chinese "counting word only": "我16岁" (literally, "I 16 counter-for-years-of-age")
  • Russian "dative": "Тебе 16 лет." (literally, "to you 16 years")

So it looks like Latin-influenced language prefer "have" while saxonic languages prefer the copula, but globally the expression can be anything.

Last thing, you can use "to be" in French:

Elle est âgée de 53 ans.

but it sounds journalistic.

(NB: I had to look up some age expressions)


Because it's how one says ages in french.

We can revert the question:

Why is to be used instead of to have when expressing/referring to age, in english?


Peut-être l'expression était "J'ai l'âge de seize ans".

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