Avoir is the general French verb for "to have," but if you’re talking about something that you physically have, tenir might be the better verb to use. The simplest meaning of tenir is "to hold." This is the way the singer Corneille uses it in one of our most popular music videos, Comme un fils (Like a Son):
Tiens ma tête quand elle fait plus de sens.
Hold my head when it no longer makes sense.
Cap. 28, Corneille: Comme un fils
When it’s not referring to something that you’re holding in your hand, tenir can also be used for something that you keep, maintain, or manage, such as a restaurant:
Aller chez Gilles Spannagel qui tient Le Cruchon, qui est le petit restaurant...
To go visit Gilles Spannagel who owns Le Cruchon, which is the little restaurant...
Cap. 22, Strasbourg: Les passants
Or it can refer to something that is attached to something else, like needles on a Christmas tree:
...des épines qui tiennent plus longtemps
...needles that stay on longer
Tenir also applies to situations in which you are compelled to do something, in the expressions tenir à and être tenu(e) de:
Je tiens à préciser que la Bretagne a son charme aussi.
I have to mention that Brittany has its charms too.
Cap. 14, Fanny et Corinne: Leurs origines
Mais ils sont tenus d’avoir... un certificat de capacité.
But they are required to have... a certificate of competency.
Cap. 48, TV Sud: Fête de la Tortue 2012
Tenir à can also mean "to be fond of," "to be attached to," or "to care about":
Elle tient à son emploi.
She is fond of her job.
And when you make tenir reflexive (se tenir), it means "to stand," "remain," or "behave." Can you imagine walking into someone’s house and seeing a llama standing in the living room?
C’est bien un lama qui se tient fièrement en plein milieu d’un salon.
That’s really a llama proudly standing in the middle of a living room.
Tiens-toi tranquille, hein sinon!
Hold still, OK, or else!
Les enfants se tiennent bien.
The children are behaving themselves.
You can also use tiens, the singular imperative form of tenir, for the interjection "look" (or more literally, "behold"):
Tiens, ça doit être bon, ça!
Look, this should be good!
The verb détenir is related to tenir and is often translated the same way, though it has the specific connotation of "to possess" or even "detain":
...qui autorise des gens à détenir des animaux, des tortues chez eux.
...which allows some people to keep animals, turtles, at home.
Cap. 47, TV Sud: Fête de la Tortue 2012
Crois-moi, tu détiens là, la base de toute connaissance.
Believe me, you hold there the basis of all knowledge.
Even if you don’t hold the basis of all knowledge, with this lesson you should hold everything you need to make good use of the verb tenir. You can check out the WordReference page on the verb for even more uses. So soyez sûr de retenir le verbe tenir (be sure to hold onto the verb tenir)!