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The French Past Tense – The Most Useful Tense Of Them All

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What’s Past Isn’t Just A Talk of The Past: Discover the French Past Tenses

The French Past Tense is a must-know to truly master the French Language. But did you know that there are 5 different ways to talk about the past? Yep, you heard that right! But the good news is that we’ve covered them all in our super simple and convenient guide below.

Ready to learn more about the French Past Tense?

A Story of Two Frenemies

There was Prince Hamlet with his dilemma ‘to be or not to be’ and then there’s you with Le passé composé or L‘imparfait. This is the battle between perfect and imperfect tense.

L’imparfaitLe passé composé
DefinitionFor events which have finished, it could have been a succession of them as well.For events which have a transparent beginning or end, instances that are happening around us, habits and what used to be.
ToneSince the event in question has happened it’s considered to be ‘perfect’.Since the event in question has no particular beginning or end, it’s considered ‘imperfect’.
ExampleLe dimanche, je jouais au football avec mes amisUn dimanche, j’ai joué au football avec mes amis
Translation to EnglishOn Sunday, I played football with my friends.
This activity happened only on one Sunday i.e. specified Sunday = fixed beginning and end.
On Sundays, I used to play football with my friends.
This activity happened every Sunday i.e. unspecified Sunday = wavering start, finish and time.

 

Construction 1: Pass your French with Le passé composé

Le passé composé is a compound tense. This implies that it has more than one part to its composition. Here is the basic formula:

Pronoun + auxiliary verb + infinitive with past participle ending.

The pronouns as we know are Je, Tu, Il/Elle, Nous, Vous, Ils/Elles.
There are two auxiliary verbs in French, être and avoir. The former is used in the presence of either reflexive verbs or the verbs from the Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp mnemonic. These mostly revolve around some kind of movement. All the other verbs (which is quite a big majority) conjugate with avoir.
The infinitive is the raw form of the verb (such as prendre (to take) for example).

Now, let’s look at the past participle endings.

Regular ‘-er’ VerbsRegular ‘-ir’ VerbsRegular ‘re’ Verbs
Drop the -er and add
é
Drop the -ir and add-
i
Drop the -re and add
u

Example:
Il est tombé de la table (He fell down from the table)
Elle a fini de manger (She finished eating)

As with all French verbs, there are always irregular ones which don’t abide to any of these rules.

Watch the video below to see how irregular verbs are conjugated in the Passé Composé:

 

Construction 2: Excavating Your Imperfections with L’imparfait

There are no hassles with auxiliary verbs here. Take the nous present tense form of the verb and drop the -ons, then add the correctly corresponding imparfait endings. Voilà! Your conjugation is ready. All the regular verbs take the same form, and the irregular ones do walk their own path but still keep a similar pattern.

PronounEndingsConjugation with Verb Venir
Je (I)aisJe venais (I came)
Tu (You)aisTu venais (You came)
Il/Elle/On (He/She/One)aitIl venait (He came)
Nous (We)ionsNous venions (We came)
Vous (You, Plural/Formal)iezVous veniez (You came)
Ils/Elles (They)aientIls/Elles venaient (They came)

Construction 3: Talk about the Past in the Future with Le future antérieur

This tense is used in relation to events or actions which took place in the past before another event or action. Confused? Let’s shed a bit more light on it and see how it’s formed.

Pronoun + simple future tense of avoir or être + past participle.

PronounConjugation with Verb Déjeuner
Je (I)J’aurai déjeuné
(I will have had lunch)
Tu (You)Tu auras déjeuné
(You will have had lunch)
Il/Elle/On (He/She/One)Il aura déjeuné
(He will have had lunch)
Nous (We)Nous aurons déjeuné
(We will have had lunch)
Vous (You, Plural/Formal)Vous aurez déjeuné
(You will have had lunch)
Ils/Elles (They)Elles auront déjeuné
(They will have had lunch)

 

All that talk of lunch (and the future) builds up quite an appetite!

Construction 4: Recently Talking with Le passé recent

There are countless things that have happened during the day, in the past hour or even minute but since these moments have passed it makes them part of the past. Try that for a tongue twister! This is an easy conjugation to learn if you want to talk about an event that has happened recently.

Pronoun + present tense of verb venir + de + infinitive of the action verb

Example:
Il vient de revenir (He just returned)
Elles viennent de partir (They have just left)

Construction 5: Keep It Simple with Le passé simple

As this tense is mostly seen in literature, we won’t get into an in-depth analysis but it’s not at all difficult to form this tense. Take the infinitive of form of -er, -ir and -re verbs, drop the infinitive endings and add the passé simple endings.

Example:
Il choisit (He chooses)

And there you have it – all there is to know on the handy French Past Tense.

See you next lesson – and in the meantime, don’t forget to practice! We wouldn’t want to end up with imperfect sentences now, do we? If you do need any help don’t hesitate to get into contact with one of our online French Tutors.

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