Le passé composé : The most used past tense in the French Language

If you wish to speak French fluently and your main goal is to talk to locals and discuss daily activities, then you need to learn the French past tense. More precisely, two of the most used past tenses in the French language: ‘le passé composé’ and ‘l’imparfait’. In this article, our focus will be to  ‘le passé composé’ as it is used to talk about almost anything that had happened in the near past: what you did during the weekend, what you saw, the different people you met last month, or the various activities you planned. 

How to form ‘le passé composé’:

As its name suggests, the form of ‘le passé composé’ (composé=compound) is compound. In other words, it is formed with two words. The first one is either one of the auxiliaries ‘être’ (to be) or ‘avoir’ (to have) and ‘le participe passé’ (past participle) of the main verb. Let’s look at’= these examples:  

  • Je chante une chanson (I sing a song) – présent: one word 
    J’ai chanté une chanson (I sang a song) – passé composé: two words 
  • Tu manges au restaurant (you eat at the restaurant) – présent 
    Tu as mangé au restaurant (you ate at the restaurant) – passé composé 
  • Il / elle vient à la fête (he/she comes to the party) – présent
    Il / elle est venu(e) à la fête (he/she came to the party) – passé composé 
  • Nous regardons un bon film (we watch a good movie) – présent
    Nous avons regardé un film (we watched a good movie) – passé composé 
  • Vous fêtez Noël avec votre famille (you celebrate Christmas with your family) – présent 
    Vous avez fêté Noël avec votre famille (you celebrated Christmas with your family) – passé composé 
  • Ils / elles achètent plusieurs cadeaux (they buy many gifts) – présent
    Ils / elles ont acheté plusieurs cadeaux (they bought many gifts) – passé composé 

Now, if you focus on the examples given above, you will notice the difference between the verb formation in the simple present and in the compound past, passé composé.  You will also notice that the formation of the verb in ‘le passé composé’ is as follows: 

Auxiliary ‘être’ or ‘avoir’ in the present form + Past participle of the main verb

Let’s recall how to form:

  • The auxiliary ‘être’ in the present tense: 
    Je suis – Tu es – Il / elle est – Nous sommes – Vous êtes – Ils / elles sont 
  • The auxiliary ‘avoir’ in the present tense:
    J’ai – Tu as – Il / elle a – Nous avons – Vous avez – Ils / elles ont 

It is getting clearer at this point isn’t it? You know what you need to do to form the most used past tense in the French language le ‘passé composé’, now let’s see how to form the past participle of the verbs. 

Also read: How well do you know the French Prepositions?

How to form ‘le participe passé’:

To master and learn the French past tense ‘le passé composé’, we need a past participle. A past participle or ‘le participe passé’ is a special verb conjugation form mainly used as the second part of the verb. It is pretty easy to form the past participle of the verbs depending on their infinitive ending. Let’s look at the rules:

  • For first-group verbs that have -er ending, the past participle will have the ending .
    For example: parler – parlé / donner – donné / jouer – joué
    J’ai donné un gâteau à mon voisin (I gave a cake to my neighbour). 

Note: the verb ‘être’ (to be) and also ‘naître’ (to be born) take an -é ending. Their past participles are ‘été’ and ‘né’. For example: J’ai été là bas hier (I was there yesterday). Le bébé est né la semaine dernière (the baby was born last week).

  • For the majority of second-group verbs that have -ir ending, the past participle will have the ending -i.
    For example: finir – fini / partir – parti / nourrir – nourri
    Nous avons fini nos devoirs (We finished our homework). 

Note: The verbs ‘sourire’ (to smile) and ‘rire’ (to laugh) also take an -i ending. Their past participles are ‘souri’ and ‘ri’. For example: Vous avez souri à la dame (you smiled to the lady) 

Le passé composé: Past tense in the French Language

Of course, we cannot talk about French grammar without talking about exceptions. Many verbs do not follow the rules and have different infinitive endings, and thus, different past participle ending.

Here are a few examples: 

  • Apprendre (to learn) – appris
  • Avoir (to have) – eu 
  • Comprendre (to understand) – compris 
  • Conduire (to drive) – conduit
  • Courir (to run) – couru
  • Mettre (to put) – mis 
  • Mourir (to die) – mort 
  • Souffrir (to suffer) – souffert 
  • Offrir (to offer) – offert 
  • Ouvrir (to open) – ouvert 
  • Prendre (to take) – pris
  • Traduire (to translate) – traduit 
  • Venir (to come) – venu 
  • Vivre (to live) – vécu 
  • Vouloir (to want) – voulu  

These are only a few of irregular past participles. But do not worry! The more you use them, the easier it will be to memorize and learn them. For some, you will only have to apply the rule, for others, just try to learn them one at a time! 

Now you might be wondering how to choose which auxiliary to use with the verb, ‘être’ or ‘avoir’. That is indeed an excellent question! Otherwise, how would we even be able to make sentences in the past. Do not worry! I keep saying that to emphasize the fact that there is nothing to worry about, really! We are here to explain the basics, and then practice makes perfect!.  

‘Être’ or ‘Avoir’: 

Le passé composé: Past tense in the French Language

One thing you need to know from the very start. The majority of verbs are formed with the auxiliary avoir. To make things easier for you, here is a list of the verbs that are formed with the auxiliary ‘être’: naître (né), aller (allé), venir (venu), monter (monté), arriver (arrivé), passer (passé), entrer (entré), rester (resté), sortir (sorti), partir (parti), rentrer (rentré), descendre (descendu), mourir (mort), revenir (revenu), retourner (retourné), devenir (devenu). 

For the verbs that are formed with the auxiliary être, their past participle need to agree with the subject. This is a whole other point that we will see in the upcoming articles. So stay tuned! Now that you have got all it takes to form verbs in le passé composé, do not hesitate to use and practice it. And for being so patient reading and understanding this article, here is a bonus part in this article. Let’s see some of the time indicators that could be useful: 

  • Hier – yesterday
  • Avant-hier – the day before yesterday 
  • La semaine dernière – last week 
  • Le mois dernier – last month 
  • L’année dernière – last year 
  • Samedi dernier – last saturday 
  • Il y a une/deux/quatre heure(s) – one/two/four hour(s) ago 
  • Il y a longtemps – long time ago 
  • Pendant le weekend – during the weekend 

Everything should be clear by now. Do not hesitate to practice what you have learned and comment below if you have any questions or concerns. Many French grammar-related articles will be posted in the upcoming weeks so keep on following our blog!