In the French grammar passé composé, there are some irregularities to be found. Like the present perfect tense of English, the passé composé is usually formed with "to have", avoir. (eg: I have eaten = J'ai mangé.) However, there are some occasions where this is NOT the case. This is often the bane of beginning French students. All reflexive constructions in the passé composé are formed with être; "to be". In addition to this, there are a select set of fourteen verbs that are conjugated with être no matter what. All of these are very common verbs that deal with movement and should be memorized. Though it may be difficult to grasp at first, eventually one learns when to use être and when to use avoir instinctually.

In order to help the memorization of these fourteen verbs, there is a mnemonic that one can remember. The name Dr. Mrs. Van Der Tramp contains the first letter to each of the verbs which conjugate with être. It can help those who are able to work with such devices.

Here is how it goes:

Be careful with the asterisked verbs, some actually DO take avoir under some conditions. Only intransitive uses of these verbs are conjugated with être.

So, let's wrap it up:
  • Verbs usually use avoir to form the passé composé.
    • J'ai mangé. I have eaten.
  • Reflexive verbs always use être to form the passé composé and the past participle agrees with number and gender of the subject.
    • Je me suis mangé. I have eaten myself!
    • Alternatively, if I were actually the collective consciousness of gaggle of schoolgirls: Nous nous sommes mangées.
  • Van Der Tramp verbs conjugate with être!
    • Je suis parti. I have left.
    • Il est mort. He has died.
    • Elle est née. She has been born.
    • and so on...
One may also see both "J'ai fini" and "Je suis fini". However, this is not an exception. "Fini" acts as a past particple in the first sentence, whilst as an adjective in the second. You might say "J'ai fini" (or more likely "Je l'ai fini"; I have finished) when you're done carving a miniature of Disneyland into a piece of wood the size of a pinhead. You'd say "Je suis fini!" (I am finished!) when you're shot in the face and about to die. The More You Know... this PSA suggested by Cletus the Foetus. of course they weren't his exact words...

It makes sense. I swear. Well, maybe it doesn't...