To Be or To Have? That Is The Question.

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One of the many differences and difficulties that becomes apparent quite early on in learning French is the issue between “being” and “having.” 

It seems to me that English is a language much more accepting of states of being, whereas the French language, more often than not, favors possession. 

Another way of looking at this is to say that English uses adjectives where French uses nouns. Here are some examples to bring some concreteness to this abstract thought that (I swear) will have a clear point soon. 


In English, we say, “I’m 24 years old.”  Our age, here, is something that we are. It’s a state of being.

In French, however, this same sentiment is expressed with a different verb: avoir (to have.) “J’ai 24 ans” (“I have 24 years.”)

When you’re hungry or cold or thirsty in English, how do you express those feelings? “I am hungry. I am cold. I am thirsty.”  States of being. Adjectives. We say that we are those things. 

If you’ve picked up on the pattern by now, you can probably guess that in French, those things change from adjectives to nouns, from things that describe us to things that we possess, and again, the verb avoir (to have) is used: “J’ai faim, j’ai froid, j’ai soif” (I have hunger, I have cold, I have thirst.”)


You might be thinking, what difference does it make!?

And that’s exactly my question for you. 

What difference does it make? What’s the difference in “being” something and “having” it? 

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According to Eckhart Tolle, there’s a pretty big difference.

He says, You can only lose something that you have, you cannot lose something that you are.”

Here’s one more example that, for me, illustrates deeply the difference “having” and “being” can have on our perception.  

In English, when someone does well, passes a test, or reaches some goal, we say they are successful. Successful is an adjective, a state of being.

In French, someone who reaches their goals is not “successful,” he simply has success. 

There literally is no adjective form of la réussite (success.) You simply have it, or you don’t have it.

It makes me wonder if anything or anyone really is anything at all, or if states of being are simply arbitrary assignments from our own unique and ever-changing sets of standards. 

This is hard. 

That is boring. 

She is pretty. 

He is strong. 

We are broken. 

States of being that we assign… and based on what? 

I’ll conclude exactly the way my English teachers always taught us not to, by telling you I’m concluding, but nevertheless, I want to close with that quote by Mr. Tolle, again, to serve as sort of a warning of the dangers of “being” versus “having”: You can only lose something that you have, you cannot lose something that you are. 

Be careful with states of being. Perhaps some things are better to have than to be.

P.S. - I'm SUPER excited about the podcast episode for this blog! It's a great discussion with some pretty cool life-changing thoughts, so check it out via the link above OR in iTunes!

LifeEmily JordanComment