I was doing one exercise. It confused me as I do not know the usage of “avoir” and “être” verbs in French.

J'ai un nouveau copain. Il est assez grand. Il a un visage rond. Il a les cheveux clairs. Il a les yeux sombres. Il est toujours stressé mais il a un grand sourire généreux et il est sympathique.

Why have we used a and est?

Is this correct:

Il est les cheveux clairs.

Today I did this exercise. Please explain how to make sure where to use the correct form of verb.

Even if I go by following logic,

  • (Avoira) To have – to possess, own, hold

  • (Êtreest) To be – status or characteristics of something or of a person.

Still, I didn't get this: “il a un grand sourire généreux”. Is big smile a possession not a characteristic?

2 Answers 2


No, the sentence

Il est les cheveux clairs.

is wrong, you should use avoir :

Il a les cheveux clairs.

But I admit I fail to see where an english speaker could not grasp the difference between être and avoir while understanding the one between to have and to be.

  • S'il a les cheveux clairs, c'est donc qu'il est blond?
    – mouviciel
    May 27, 2013 at 7:41
  • 3
    Perhaps the OP is not an english speaker. :)
    – Otiel
    May 27, 2013 at 7:42
  • blond peut en effet qualifier aussi bien le cheveu que son hôte, d'où l'apparent paradoxe. May 27, 2013 at 7:43
  • 2
    @Otiel ...but he could at least write a short english text here to ask his question... without knowing about to be or to have ? Are you nitpicking here ? May 27, 2013 at 7:45
  • I'm not nitpicking, just raising a possibility. He could have written his question without really knowing about be/have subtilities.
    – Otiel
    May 27, 2013 at 7:58

In these cases, where the matter is to describe something (or someone), you can chose between être and avoir by the same mean as in English

Être assigns properties and avoir assigns possession. and there is an easy way to know which one you want:

Properties are expressed by adjectives and possessions by nouns.


  • To assign “un grand sourire” to il, you have to use avoir since sourire is a noun, thus

    Il a un grand sourire

  • To assign “assez grand” to il, you have to use être since grand is an adjective, thus

    Il est assez grand

Note that this is only a rule of thumb and by no mean a proper formal set of rules. If you want that, you have to realise that your question is actually confusing two different things

  • A copula, that is, a way to assign relationships, membership, properties or positions to objects, expressed in French as in English and all Indo-European languages¹ via a so-called copular verb: to be, être. In programming, one would call this a IS_A
  • A possession relationships, expressed in French as in English via a possessive verb: to have, avoir. In programming, one would call this an HAS_A.

So why “Il a un grand sourire”? Because body parts are considered to be possession, as are psychic features “Elle a un esprit vif” and lived years “J'ai dix ans”². I don't think³ it could be further rationalised without falling into the realm of speculative psychology (an individual has ownership of himself, blablabla) ; I would rather say that it is arbitrary.

By the way, “Il est un grand sourire” is grammatically and semantically correct, but means “he is nothing but a big smile”, est denoting here an equivalence.

¹ Yes, knowledgeable person, it has not the same importance and precise function in all IE languages.
² Je sais que c'est pas vrai.
³ But I would love to read serious linguistics rationalisations if someone has some.

  • So why: j'ai dix ans ?
    – mouviciel
    May 27, 2013 at 8:15
  • Tu es modérateur ;-) May 27, 2013 at 8:18
  • Well, dix an is a noun phrase. And modérateur is a denominal adjective.
    – Evpok
    May 27, 2013 at 8:19
  • 1
    Ça c'est une autre phrase. Le sens est Evpok ∈ {Modérateurs du site}, il ne s'agit pas de donner une propriété, comme dans « Evpok est modérateur » (ie « Evpok modère ») ou un attribut (« Evpok a un cerveau ») mais d'énoncer une appartenance.
    – Evpok
    May 27, 2013 at 8:40
  • 1
    Elle est un esprit vif me gène si peu que je me demande s'il n'y a pas des contextes où ce ne serait pas la formulation la plus naturelle. Quant à il est un grand sourire... May 27, 2013 at 10:17

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