Descendre can be used with avoir or être in Le Passé Composé... and changes meaning

Most verbs use either avoir or être as the auxiliary verb in Passé composé (or other compound tense)but descendre uses both, depending on its grammatical usage* and what it means in the sentence.
 
*Grammaphile's Corner : the technical grammatical distinction between these cases is actually whether the verb is used in a transitive or intransitive manner.
- The transitive version (the version with a direct object) uses avoir.
- The intransitive version (lacking a direct object), uses être.

être + descendu [de, sur, etc]
= to get off [something] 
= to get out of  [something/somewhere] 
= to go/come down from/to/into [something/somewhere]

Je suis descendu du train avant elle.
I got off the train before her.

Tu es descendu de la voiture.
You got out of the car.

Ils sont descendus de Paris pour le mariage.
They came down from Paris for the wedding.

Elle est descendue à la cave chercher une bouteille de vin.
She went down to the basement to get a bottle of wine.

 

Note that in each case where être is the auxilliary, the verb descendre is followed by a preposition (en, sur, de, dans, à etc.). 
In these cases descendre is usually about getting off [something], getting out of [something] or coming down from [somewhere].

See also Agreeing past participle with subject's gender and number with (+ être) verbs in Le Passé Composé

avoir + descendu [quelque chose] ou [quelqu'un]
= to go/come/climb down [something] 
= to take [something] down -> physically moving [something] to a lower position 
= to take [someone / animated being] down -> to shoot them down, to kill them 

J'ai descendu les escaliers aussi vite que j'ai pu.
I went down the stairs as fast as I could.

Il a descendu le Parrain.
He took down the Godfather (!!)

J'ai descendu les boîtes au sous-sol.
I took the boxes down to the basement.

Tu as descendu le cadeau de Pierre?
You took Pierre's present downstairs?

-> Here it literally means You took Pierre's present down (somewhere), which in a geographical context implies down a physical level, some stairs or elevator for example. Therefore in English, you would translate it as downstairs when no clear destination (e.g. to the basement) is expressed. 

When descendre is followed immediately by a noun (as opposed to a preposition), it uses avoir as the auxiliary, like most verbs.  
 
It can be very tricky to get the distinction here if you think in terms of what descendre means in English (English verbs are very often 'prepositional', meaning we say things like to get off a plane as well as disembark a boat which are equivalent in meaning but grammatically very different - our verbs very often have prepositions where they don't in French!).  
So, ask yourself if there's a preposition in the French, not the English! 
 
Here is the list of all "two-auxiliaryverbs in compound tenses:
 

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

J'ai descendu les boîtes au sous-sol.
I took the boxes down to the basement.


Ils sont descendus de Paris pour le mariage.
They came down from Paris for the wedding.


Elle est descendue à la cave chercher une bouteille de vin.
She went down to the basement to get a bottle of wine.


avoir + descendu


J'ai descendu les escaliers aussi vite que j'ai pu.
I went down the stairs as fast as I could.


Tu as descendu le cadeau de Pierre?
You took Pierre's present downstairs?


Il a descendu le Parrain.
He took down the Godfather (!!)


être + descendu


Je suis descendu du train avant elle.
I got off the train before her.


Tu es descendu de la voiture.
You got out of the car.


Jacques est descendu du haricot magique.
Jack got off the beanstalk.


Q&A

Sunya

Kwiziq community member

8 October 2018

3 replies

Jacque a descendu le géant.

The test at the end of the lesson marked the choice: Jack took the giant down (killed him) as wrong. It accepted only the choice: Jack took the giant downstairs as correct. Why? The lesson suggests that the first choice to be one of the correct meanings. What am I missing? 

Thanks, Sunya 

Chris

Kwiziq community member

9 October 2018

9/10/18

Are you sure that "Jack took the giant downstairs" is indeed the proper translation? I would have said "Jack took the giant down", meaning he killed it, would be the right one.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

9 October 2018

9/10/18

Bonjour Sunya !

I had a look at your Correction Board, and it says that both "Jack took the giant down (killed him)" and "Jack took the giant downstairs" are correct, but shows that you only selected one answer (Jack took the giant downstairs), hence the nearly correct mark.

I hope that's helpful!
Bonne journée !

Sunya

Kwiziq community member

10 October 2018

10/10/18

Thank you. I really must focus on distinguishing between intransitive and transitive forms... the action is happening to whom or what? Subject or direct object? être or avoir choice then becomes easier...

Sunya

Eric

Kwiziq community member

9 August 2018

1 reply

why not he climbed down the magic beanstalk?

"In another example I read that Jacques est descendu de l'arbre means Jack climbed down the tree. So why cannot Jacques est descendu du haricot magique mean Jack climbed down the magic bean as well as Jack got off the magic beanstalk?"  In the quiz I took, I was told it was wrong.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

8 October 2018

8/10/18

"Jacques est descendu de l'arbre means Jack climbed down the tree." 

Really the English translation should read "Jack climbed down from the tree"

This point is the translation of "de" above.

I suspect this is why you are being marked wrong.

Hope this helps.

Alan

Beverley

Kwiziq community member

3 June 2018

1 reply

So many questions on this topic!! t seems to me that there is so much to think about with these avoir/être issues is simply to remember the one rule.

Use etre when it's followed by a preposition and avoir when it's followed by a noun.

Beverley

Kwiziq community member

3 June 2018

3/06/18

Sorry about the typos.  It's 10.40pm and I have been gardening all day.  I should really be in bed, not revising lessons from my notebook!!

Paul

Kwiziq community member

29 May 2018

3 replies

Jack descended (on) the giant

I can see from the discussion that I am not the only learner who gets confused about this, but am I correct that these two sentences are translated thus:

Jack descended the giant = Jack a descendu le geant (Sorry, can't do the accent)

and

Jack descended on the giant = Jack est descendu sur le geant.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

30 May 2018

30/05/18

Hi Paul, my understanding is thus:

Jack a descendu le géant. -- Jack took down the giant (i.e., he killed it)
Jack est descendu du géant. -- Jack came down from the giant.#

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Paul

Kwiziq community member

30 May 2018

30/05/18

Thanks Chris. I saw your two examples in the lesson, but it gets trickier in the multiple choice quizzes.  According to the "right" answers on the quizzes "Jacques a descendu le géant." also means "Jack took the giant downstairs." But the meaning of "Jacques est descendu du haricot magique." includes "Jack got (climbed) off the magic beanstalk" but not "Jack climbed down the magic beanstalk."

Maybe the meaninngs are different for beanstalks and giants a propos Aurelie's comment that "With animated beings, "avoir descendu" means "to take down, to shoot them down, to kill them"." Aurelie also writes that "If you wanted to say "He climbed down ON the giant", you would use "être descendu" as it would be followed by a preposition such as "de" (off/from) or "le long de" (along):"

Maybe the quiz answer is wrong?

Terri

Kwiziq community member

12 November 2018

12/11/18

I also had this question, and I'm still confused. The examples "J'ai descendu les escaliers" and "Jacques a descendu le géant". Why does the first mean I went down, but the second does not mean He went down (He descended)? I did not get the first two, but this one I did answer was marked wrong. 

Ron

Kwiziq community member

1 December 2017

3 replies

More specific description please

être + descendu [de, sur, etc] = to get off [something] = to get out of [something/somewhere] = to go/come down from/to/into [something/somewhere] avoir + descendu [quelque chose] ou [quelqu'un] = to go/come/climb down [something] = to take [something] down -> physically moving [something] to a lower position = to take [someone / animated being] down -> to shoot them down, to kill them There seems to be a lot of ambiguity between the English example meanings between être and avoir usage: to get off [something] = to go/come down from/to/into [something/somewhere] and: = to go/come/climb down [something]. Because in English these translations can have very similar meanings, it is unclear to me, hence the ambiguity, a method to differentiate these two. Could you please elaborate more with a bit more preciseness? Merci en avance.

Chris

Kwiziq community member

4 December 2017

4/12/17

You use "être descendu" in the intransitive form whenever you use a preposition and not a direct object. For example: "je suis descendu de la boîte" -- I got out of the box. But "j'ai descendu la boîte (à la cave)" -- I took the box down (to the basement). I guess you need to detach yourself from the English and stop translating. Easier said than done, I know, but ultimately there's no way around it. -- Chris.

Ron

Kwiziq community member

4 December 2017

4/12/17

It is difficult to not translate, partially due to the fact that everything on this site is translated. Merci.

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

10 April 2018

10/04/18

Hi Ron - yes, this is unfortunately one of the harder aspects of language when the mapping between two languages isn't straightforward. Chris is right that the only way to deal with this is to try to detach yourself from the English (which is only really there to ensure you understand the meaning quickly).

In general, French is more precise than English, so that may help here. Consider that the same expression is used for trains and cars, whereas we use two completely different expressions for the same thing in English (why do we get out of a car, yet get off a train? The action is almost identical - but the act climbing down, say, a bean stalk is clearly different and we see that reflected in the French).

Prepositions (and prepositional phrases, in English) is one of the areas where there is no logic or rule to help. You just have to learn and become familiar with each in each context.

However, the main take away from this lesson and the related lessons is that if the verb takes a direct object (a.k.a. 'transitive') then we use avoir not être in le passé composé.

Hope that helps!

John

Kwiziq community member

28 August 2017

2 replies

Il ________ descendu le drapeau

I ran into this prompt on the quiz "Il ________ descendu le drapeau, car la reine avait quitté le palais." The correct answer is "il a descendu." Why is it "a" and not "avait"? I feel this is more of an English question than a french question. We have "la reine avait quitté." So shouldn't it be "il AVAIT descendu"? When should we use avait and avait for both clauses?

Ron

Kwiziq community member

29 August 2017

29/08/17

It is possible to use l'imparfait and le passé composé in the same sentence I don't have access to the lessons but using the magnifying glass type in passé compose and imparfait together which should give you a lesson explaining it. Bonne chance. My internet connection is down so I am on mon portable pour le moment

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

29 August 2017

29/08/17

Bonjour John !

Both Le Passé Composé and Le Plus-que-Parfait are possible in this case, depending on the sequence of actions :
- Il avait descendu le drapeau, car la reine avait quitté le palais.
-
> both actions happened simultaneously

- Il a descendu le drapeau, car la reine avait quitté le palais.

- the queen left first, and then he took the flag down

The English sentence we gave was "He took down the flag, because the queen had left the palace.", so here we prompted the second case :)

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

Chris

Kwiziq community member

22 November 2016

3 replies

"Jacques a descendu le géant."

I get the transitive meaning of "avoir descendu" in the example above. Therefore the possible option "Jack descended on the giant.", meaning he is sliding down the gian's body, would also be transitive. So why doesn't it work here? -- Chris.

Jim

Kwiziq community member

22 November 2016

22/11/16

I think that the sentence translates to "Jacques has felled or knocked down the géant", rather than sliding down his body If we were referring to a staircase then I would agree that this context would have the sense of sliding down. Alan

Clare

Kwiziq community member

13 January 2017

13/01/17

But in the test one has to tick all that COULD be correct. One suggestion is that Jacques descended on the giant. Surely this is a possibility? As well as the other correct answers of Jacques felled the giant and Jacques took the giant downstairs? If it is not a possibility could you please explain why? Thanks

Lukas

Kwiziq community member

6 July 2017

6/07/17

I don't understand either. It seems that these two sentences: J'ai descendu les escaliers. Jacques a descendu le géant. Have the exact same structure -- avoir + descendre + an object. How come one can mean "went down the stairs" but the other cannot mean "climbed down the giant" (e.g. on his back or something)?

sheila

Kwiziq community member

20 November 2016

2 replies

au sous-sol.

I understand that we use être w hen certain verbs are followed by a preposition but isn't 'au' as in 'J'ai descendu les boîtes au sous-sol.', a preposition or have I got that wrong - again!

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

21 November 2016

21/11/16

Bonjour Sheila ! I understand your confusion, but here "au sous-sol" doesn't follow and relate to the verb "descendre". In this sentence, "descendre" is followed by a direct object (to take [something] down), therefore you use "avoir", even though you're adding a location *where* you're taking these boxes. The meaning is different: it's "to take [something] down [somewhere]" vs "to go down [somewhere]". I hope that's helpful! À bientôt !

sheila

Kwiziq community member

21 November 2016

21/11/16

Ok thanks

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

27 October 2016

2 replies

Susan asked: " doesn't être+descendre mean come down from AND get off of?"

"Jacques est descendu du haricot magique." (Jack got off the magic beanstalk.)

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

27 October 2016

27/10/16

Hello Susan ! The nuance here is as such: "être descendu" can mean "to come down (from)" in the sense of leaving (something), such as "I came down from the attic" which implies leaving the attic. However, "avoir descendu" would be "to come down (something)", as in being on something and sliding/climbing/going down it. Therefore here to say "Jack came down the magic beanstalk." (i.e. progressed down its surface), you would say "Jacques A descendu le haricot magique.". I hope that's helpful! À bientôt !

Susan

Kwiziq community member

27 October 2016

27/10/16

Aha. Merci.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

25 October 2016

1 reply

Christopher asked: "Why "J. a descendu le géant." can't mean "J. climbed down on the giant" ?"

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

25 October 2016

25/10/16

Bonjour Christopher ! The form "avoir descendu" can only mean "to go/come/climb down" SOMETHING: this meaning doesn't apply to people or animated beings. With animated beings, "avoir descendu" means "to take down -> to shoot them down, to kill them" If you wanted to say "He climbed down ON the giant", you would use "être descendu" as it would be followed by a preposition such as "de" (off/from) or "le long de" (along): "Il est descendu du géant. / Il est descendu le long de la jambe du géant. (along the giant's leg)" I hope that's helpful! À bientôt !
Clever stuff underway!