Rumored to be the most frequently used past tense, the passé composé is an important concept in French grammar. It can be used alone but is often seen in conjunction with other tenses – which can get complicated. But no worries! This guide will teach you all the ins and outs of French passé composé so you can start using it like a pro.
So what do we mean by passé composé? Maybe you’re describing a crazy series of events, or you were doing something in the past, and it ended. Or, you want to talk about actions that were done repeatedly or situations in likely events. All of these can fall under the umbrella of passé composé. In English, we would use simple past (I did) or present perfect (I have done).
Conjugation Formula: Pronoun + Auxiliary Verb + Past Participle
Combine the past participle of the verb with the present tense conjugation of être or avoir.
J’ai rendu visit à mon cousin. (I visited my cousin.)
When to use avoir in passé composé?
Avoir definitely gets the award for most helpful helping verb. To form the passé composé, use auxiliary verb avoir with all the verbs that don’t pair with être.
Elle été au marché hier soir. (She was at the market last night.)
Elles ont vu le film ensemble la semaine dernière. (They saw the movie together last week.)
DR. & MRS. VANDERTRAMPP Always Invite Être
We can remember that most of the verbs that take être for formation in this tense have to do with some kind of movement (e.g., sortir, retourner). However, a guaranteed way to learn which verbs use être is by remembering DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP and memorizing the simple table below.
|D||devenir (to become)|
|R||revenir (to come back)|
|M||mourir (to die)|
|R||retourner (to return)|
|S||sortir (to go out)|
|V||venir (to come)|
|A||arriver (to arrive)|
|N||naître (to be born)|
|D||descendre (to descend)|
|E||entrer (to enter)|
|R||rentrer (to return)|
|T||tomber (to fall)|
|R||rester (to rest)|
|A||aller (to go)|
|M||monter (to ascend)|
|P||partir (to leave)|
|P||passer (to pass)|
Other verbs that take être are the reflexive verbs (beginning with se in the infitive).
Tous les enfants se sont lavés les mains. (All the children washed their hands.)
Phew! Take a breath and use this short video to review how to choose between être and avoir when constructing the passé composé:
The Key Steps to Forming Passé Composé
Let’s explore more closely how to construct the passé composé with the following steps.
Step 1: Know Your Present Tense
Now that we are aware of the basics and which auxiliary verb to deploy where, the first thing you need to do is remember the present tense conjugations of both être and avoir. The table below will help!
|Être Present Tense Conjugation||Avoir Present Tense Conjugation|
|je||suis||I am||j’||ai||I have|
|tu||es||you are||tu||a||you have|
|il/elle/on||est||he/she/one is||il/elle/on||a||he/she/one has|
|nous||sommes||we are||nous||avons||we have|
|vous||êtes||you are||vous||avez||you have|
|ils/elles||sont||they are||ils/elles||ont||they have|
Step 2: Figure Out the Past Participle
If you go back and look at the formula listed in the beginning of the article, you’ll see that the past participle comes after the auxiliary verb. With your helping verb in hand, these endings will be the perfect close to most of your passé composé tenses.
- All French regular verbs ending in -er take “é”
Example: parler (to speak) becomes parlé
- All French regular verbs ending in -ir take “i”
Example: finir (to finish) becomes fini
- All French regular verbs ending in -re take “u”
Example: attendre (to wait) becomes attendu
In order for you to understand the whole formula, let’s conjugate the verb attendre with avoir:
|J’ai attendu.||I waited.|
|Tu as attendu.||You waited.|
|Il a attendu.||He waited.|
|Nous avons attendu.||We waited.|
|Vous avons attendu.||You waited.|
|Ils ont attendu.||They waited.|
Of course, French irregular verbs follow their own path in passé composé. Some common patterns are: -ire endings become -it, -enir endings become -enu, and -aitre becomes -u.
The only way to deal with these is through practice and memory. Let’s look at an example so you can start to get comfortable with irregular French verbs in passé composé.
|Irregular Verb Apprendre|
|J’ai appris.||I learned.|
|Tu as appris.||You learned.|
|Il/elle/on a appris.||He/she/one learned.|
|Nous avons appris.||We learned.|
|Vous avez appris.||You learned.|
|Ils/elles ont appris.||They learned.|
Step 3: Does the past participle agree in gender and number?
No matter which of the two helping verbs you conjugate with, always remember that gender and number can play a huge role in determining the verb forms.
The Curious Case of Avoir
If there is a direct object before the verb, then and only then does the past participle agree in gender and number. The trick to finding out where the direct object is in the sentence is to ask “what?” in relation to the verb.
J’ai regardé la télé. (I watched TV.)
*Here, what she watched is “la télé,” and it falls after the verb. No agreement.
Je l’ai regardée. (I watched it.)
*The object pronoun for la télé (l’) comes before the verb, so the past participle must agree.
Here are the endings for past participle agreement:
The Simple Case of Être
Être is easy: The past participle always agrees when using être in the passé composé.
Toutes les femmes sont allées à Berlin. (All the women went to Berlin.)
Remember, no matter the number of women in the group, if there is even one man, the masculine plural would be employed.
And by just following these simple steps and knowing the formula, you’ll have the world of passé composé at your fingertips. Why stick to recounting your adventures in just English when you can woo a French audience with perfectly timed French past tense? Spin a few tales and get some speaking practice. You can also get more conversation and any other help by connecting with our French tutors. See you next lesson, mes amis!