1. Why do these 16 verbs require être as the auxiliary verb, to form the passé composé in French?

2. Abbreviated as DMPRRS, these 6 (of the 16) are ambitransitive. When transitive, their auxiliary verb reverts to the usual avoir. Why? Are there explanations more detailed than John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford)'s beneath?

Source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009). [p. 102 Bottom]

  Learn a European language, including any Germanic language but Swedish, and note that quite often, while most verbs form their past perfect with the verb haveIch habe gesprochen (“I have spoken”)—a good little bunch do it with the verb be, too—Ich bin gekommen (“I ‘am come’ ”). Just like in Old English: Learning had fallen away was “Learning was fallen away”: Lār āfeallen wæs.
  Marking some verbs with be instead of have is a matter of being explicit about a certain nuance: in the perfect, the verbs marked with be refer, technically, to a state rather than an action; i.e., something that bes. When you say you have arrived, you mean that you have now achieved the state of being there: “I’m here, so let’s get started.” On the other hand, when you talk about how you raked leaves this afternoon, you usually are getting across that you per-

[p. 103]

formed the action of raking leaves, not that you have achieved the state of having raked the leaves and are now ready to have your picture taken.
  We English speakers think, “Well, yeah . . .” but hardly feel it necessary to split that hair. The other Germanic languages do split it—and Old English did.
  But something strange started happening in Middle English, as usual; now it was the be-perfect that was falling away (like autumn leaves). By Shakespeare, be is used with only a few verbs

(“And didst thou not, when she was gone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people?” Henry IV, Part II, II, i, 96)

and today, it lingers on only in a frozen form such as The autumn leaves now are gone. Even there, you may well have thought of gone as an adjective (The leaves are red, The leaves are gone), and in any case you can also say The autumn leaves have gone, which, in this case of the grand old Old English be-perfect, they have, as always in English.

[p. 148 Bottom] [The content is also mooted on English SE].

  And forget our processing that when we have e-mailed something, an action has been performed while when we have left, a state has arisen in which we are gone. When using the perfect, Old English speakers used be instead of have, with a bunch of verbs that referred more to how things ended up than an event happening. Apparently to us today, “states, schmates”—everything is an action.

Source: What Language Is (2011), p. 27 Top.

  Or, what part of speech is gone in She is gone? Call it an adjective—and explain why you can't say a gone dog as you can say a brown dog. She is gone is English's wan gesture toward something robust in its Germanic relatives, in which a whole group of verbs take be instead of have in the past, because they describe something that is more how you are than what you did. To be gone is just that, to be gone. Sure, it is also technically to "have" exerted the action of leaving, but we think more read-ily of the result of the leaving, that one is in the state of being gone. Thus just as French has Il est allé, "He is gone," German has Er ist gegangen. All of the other Germanic languages have the equivalent, or almost all (what's up with you, Swedish?). English crudely forces have on every verb, and while Swedish does, too, that's just one coarseness, as if it happened not to learn to put a napkin in its lap but still went about in double- breasted suits and cultivated orchids. English, in comparison, just-the-facts-ma'am across the board, is Cro-Magnon.

  • 2
    This is a regional feature of some European languages, (so is using the verb for "to have" to make past/perfect tenses in fact.) So you will also find examples of it in German, and as mentioned in some (archaic) English usage. Apr 11, 2015 at 5:01
  • Please edit this to fix the title. You're not asking about the mnemonic, you're asking about a set of words.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 11, 2015 at 23:46
  • @curiousdannii Thanks. Would you please advise of a more helpful title? I used DR MRS VANDERTRAMP because I don't know how else to cite these 16 especial verbs.
    – user5306
    Apr 12, 2015 at 3:52
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit That page calls them "être verbs". If you're asking about English rather than French then you'd need to establish that they are a verb class in English.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 12, 2015 at 4:01
  • Italian also has the ho vs. sono contrast. I wonder if that's the same phenomenon. Sep 16, 2015 at 23:07

2 Answers 2


DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP are verbs that deal with state, movement, and direction. They are also used intransitively (without a direct object; e.g., Je suis sorti., 'I went out.').

You can see the difference notably when you consider that if some of these same verbs are used transitively or ditransitively, then « être » is no longer the copula. Instead, those verbs then take « avoir » as their copula (e.g., J'ai sorti les poubelles, 'I took out the trash.').

Consider the following:

  • I was birthed. (vs) *I have birthed. (vs) I have birthed two kids.
  • I was outed. (vs) *I have outed. (vs) I have outed the cheaters.

The examples won't match up exactly cross-linguistically, but the general idea is there.

According to Fagyal et al. (2006), "The combination of the auxiliary verb...and the past participle [in French] might have originally retained the possessive meaning of 'to have' [from Latin], so that epistolas scriptas habeo might have meant 'I have written some letter' or 'I have some letters that were written'."

It's possible that latin roots referring to possesives when using 'have' may be attributing to the need in French for a secondary PAST AUX (« être ») for statives.

  • Hopefully the additional information helps somewhat. It's likely an historical change based on Latinate roots.
    – A Alaimalo
    Apr 11, 2015 at 5:50
  • Thank you. I deleted my earlier, now outmoded (pun intended) comment.
    – user5306
    Apr 11, 2015 at 17:58

The "why" of it is essentially a question of whether the participle refers back to the subject. The être verbs all refer to a changed state of the subject — which is particularly obvious with naître, mourir, tomber and rester.

Now you might ask: why just those thirteen verbs? Aren't there many more that can be construed to involve a change of the subject's state, and hence require "be" rather than "have"? Why is "I have grown up" J'ai grandi, not *Je suis grandi?

That's a reasonable question. In fact, there are languages that are more consistent about be/have, such as Danish: Jeg er vokset op "I have ('am') grown up", as opposed to Jeg har set noget "I have seen something". It must have been the case with French at some point as well, before avoir began to take over, so that only thirteen être verbs remained in the end, most likely because they were common enough for their existing perfect forms to survive as set phrases.

  • 2
    Danish might be more consistent, but it's still not as easy as transitivity vs non-transitivity. For example, "have" tends to be used for the experiential pp, whereas "være" tends to be used for the "resulting state". "Han er rejst", he has travelled, as in he has gone travelling, but "han har rejst meget", he has travelled a lot.
    – dainichi
    Jun 12, 2015 at 0:33
  • @dainichi Very similar to go in English there: “He is gone” (= he is no longer here) vs. “He has gone on many trips” (= experiential). Note that “Han er rejst” with no PP to indicate the goal of his travels usually does not mean “he has gone travelling”, but rather “he has departed”. Sep 20, 2015 at 11:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, similar on the surface, but not so sure deeper down. In the "depart" sense, rejse is always with "være", PP or not, e.g. "Han er rejst til Kina", whereas *"He is gone to China" is not standard, AFAIK.
    – dainichi
    Sep 24, 2015 at 0:11

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