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characteristic VS possesion- help please!

edited June 2015 in French
I am confused about the difference between characteristics and possessions in French because... well... we possess characteristics.

For this, I mean using être VS avoir.

As far as I can see, I'm just going to have to learn this situation by situation, but I am desperate to have a true understanding of when to use which term.

So far, I know to say "j'ai froid" but "je suis belle." I don't really see why, although I know the rule (I think!)

I just don't understand. I looked on a forum about French, and someone who was native to the language said that they don't understand why people who are foreign to French don't understand! They said it seemed completely obvious to them. It very well isn't to me.

I even have a friend with their first language being French, and he is very fluent in English as well. He has helped me through some of the earlier challenges of French, and I'm glad to have a good start on understanding the grammar with his help along with my courses, but I just can't get a mental grasp on this.

At first I thought that maybe "froid" meant "coldness" rather than "cold" and that there was a different word for directly "cold," but then there'd have to be another word for "beau" to mean "beauty" rather than "beautiful." Are there words like that in French??

I hope that I get some help with this.. I can't start French in school until this next coming school year, so I've been learning with my books, my app, the internet, and my French friend. Don't get me wrong; it's been pretty great. I just need to get past this new obstacle. 


  • Sev
    edited July 2015

    Bonjour !

    Thank you for your post. It's indeed a problem faced by all learners and leads to 'instinctive' errors when trying to express yourself in French. While certain things translate well, others require you to abandon accepted notions or logic.

    Similar examples exist, though you’ll see that depending on the structure, nouns, adjectives or adverbs can be used sometimes: 

    avoir faim/soif (to have hunger/thirst) vs. to be hungry/thirsty

    avoir honte (de) (to have shame (of)) vs. to be ashamed (of/about)

    avoir l’habitude (de) (to have the habit (of)) vs. to be used to

    avoir peur (de) (to have fear (of)) vs. to be afraid (of); 

    avoir … ans (to have … years) vs. to be … years old)

    avoir l’air (de) (to have the air (of)) vs. to look (like)

    avoir raison/tort (to have reason/wrong or fault) vs. to be right/wrong

    avoir sommeil (to have sleep) vs. to be sleepy

    Also note: aller bien (to go well) vs. to be well. Je suis bien instead means ‘I am comfortable’

    Here is one way to look at the issue since it appears a problem of possessions vs. characteristics. Consider the differences:

    elle a froid (she is cold) vs. elle est froide(she is cold)(about her temperament)

    j’ai mal (I have ache/sickness) vs. je suis mal (I feel sick/undisposed) (note: mal can be used with other verbs and contexts) 

    You may be able to see that in French certain states or feelings are expressed as if these were external so to speak, acting on the subject.

    Admittedly, one can not ‘possess’ an adjective (cold/hot, etc.)… but it is so in French. 

    German language, like english here, is more ‘logical’:(Mir ist kalt/warm).

    In the end, you will have to accept the idiosyncrasies of each language, and that a number of things cannot be translated literally.That is why at a certain point in the learning process, I stress trying to forget the rules and try to think directly in French, without translating in your mind. 

    To achieve this, work with objects and people, and focus on the sound and feel of the words or expressions as you relate with things and people . This will happen more easily if you immerse yourself buy surrounding yourself with French things/people - ideally by living in the foreign country! 

    But that is the most fascinating part of expressing yourself in another tongue/culture: to abandon everything (and disappear behind a new persona. It will open your mind to how other people see and experience the world… 

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