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Is être in the passé composé really nothing but an auxillary verb, or does it cause some sense of the present perfect to be evoked?

For example, to my foreign ears, I can't help but automatically translate je suis mort to English I am dead or Spanish Estoy muerto. But I'm wondering if to French native speakers je suis mort really just means I died/yo morí with no added nuance at all.

As a though experiment: how would French refer to someone who died but came back to life? Would it just be il est mort or would the passé simple be used?

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Whether compound past tenses such as passé composé are formed with être or avoir is a purely grammatical rule. It has no impact on the meaning, and in particular no impact on the “kind of pastness”. A passé composé with être is no more (or less) of a present perfect than a passé composé with avoir.

It's true that when the past tense is formed with être, the sentence is grammatically ambiguous: “je suis [participe passé]” could be a passé composé in the active voice, a present in the passive voice, or the present tense of être with an adjective that is an attribut du sujet¹. The choice of verb and the meaning determine which interpretations are possible.

Only certain kinds of verbs can have their compound past tenses formed with être: mostly state changes, for which “I have [changed to] state” and “I am [in this] state” are often equivalent. The default interpretation (inasmuch as there is one) varies from verb to verb. For example, “il est mort” (“he has died” or “he is dead”) implies that the person is still dead, because dying is normally irreversible, so the default interpretation is that it indicates the current state (être + attribut du sujet). At the other end of the spectrum, “il est parti” (“he is gone”) does not indicate where the person is now, because “parti” is not really used as an adjective, so it's clearly a passé composé. In between, something like “il est sorti” (“he has gone out” or “he is out”) is ambiguous, and only the context can tell whether this means that the person is currently out.

Context does make the grammatical interpretation change, and this is completely transparent for a native speaker. “Il est mort hier” (“he died yesterday”) is perfectly fine, and a native speaker would not consider this weird in any way. Similarly,“il est sorti, il reviendra demain” (“he's gone out, he'll be back tomorrow”) and “il est sorti fumer deux fois” (“he went out twice to smoke”) are both perfectly fine.

You can find examples of synonymous verbs, one of which takes the auxiliary être and the other avoir. For example, in many contexts, arrêter (to stop) can be indifferently reflexive or intransitive in common usage. These two sentences have exactly the same meaning.

Son cœur s'est arrêté de battre.
Son cœur a arrêté de battre.

¹ Verbs that take the auxiliary être are normally intransitive and therefore don't have a passive voice. However, dual-usage verbs do exist, where the verb can either be transitive and use avoir or intransitive and take être. For example, “elle est montée” is usually a past tense (“elle est montée sur la colline”: “she climbed up the hill”), but it could be a passive voice (“la pièce est montée par un metteur en scène inconnu”: “the play is produced by an unknown director”) or an adjective (“l'affaire est montée de toutes pièces”: “the whole business was entirely made up”).

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I think it could also have something to do with the term mort being used for multiple meanings, whereas other languages use separate terms. In English, dying and being dead are easily distinguished. The French equivalent is mourir and être mort, which leads to confusions when conjugating mourir in the passé composé. (Interestingly, German has the verb sterben which is reserved for the specific act of passing away.)

As a though experiment: how would French refer to someone who died but came back to life?

One would probably say il était mort, the plus-que-parfait referred to something that happened before another action (that is also in the past): il était mort, mais on l'a ressucité

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Hmm... être as auxiliary doesn't automatically connote the present perfect any more than avoir does.

These fragments are more or less equivalent:

être expression avoir expression
Je suis monté J'ai grimpé
Je suis sorti J'ai quitté
Je suis arrivé J'ai atteint

However, there is a loose semantic grouping to the être verbs that interacts with the effect of the present perfect. Specifically, they are mostly about state change: birth, death, presence, absence, becoming, elevation more or less covers it. When the new state is still the current one, yes, you could say there is overlap with the present perfect: that is, there is no real difference between Je suis mort "I died" and Je suis mort "I am dead".

But not being able to distinguish them grammatically or semantically doesn't mean (paradoxically) that they are the exact same entity; one can be modified by locutions like Je suis mort le 2 février and the other by locutions like Je suis toujours mort, proving that they are lexically distinct.

When French speakers hear an être auxiliary, they hear it as one or the other, whether aware of it or not (and whether correctly or not), and would feel surprised if they then heard an adverbial phrase tacked on that didn't match the hypothesis.

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  1. Is être in the passé composé really nothing but an auxillary verb, or does it cause some sense of the present perfect to be evoked?

If the passé composé is used, that means the event happend in the past. The fact that what happened still affects the present can be a side effect but is not a grammatical consequence.


  1. For example, to my foreign ears, I can't help but automatically translate je suis mort to English I am dead or Spanish Estoy muerto. But I'm wondering if to French native speakers je suis mort really just means I died/yo morí with no added nuance at all.

It doesn't, the context is everything.

Je suis mort is usually not a passé composé but a present (I am dead/exhausted) as opposed to je suis vivant/en forme (I am alive/in good shape).

Je suis mort, je n'ai plus les jambes de mes vingt ans. (présent)

Je suis mort en 1821, qui suis-je ? (passé composé)


  1. As a though experiment: how would French refer to someone who died but came back to life? Would it just be il est mort or would the passé simple be used?

Either one can be used:

Il est mort sur la croix, mais Il a ressuscité trois jours plus tard.

Il mourut sur la croix, mais ressuscita trois jours plus tard.

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