Passé composé

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Diagram showing which verbs (apart from les verbes pronominaux) are conjugated with être; below each verb in infinitive form is the past participle.

Passé composé (French pronunciation: ​[pase kɔ̃pɔze], compound past) is the most commonly used past tense in the modern French language. It is used to express an action that has been completed at the time of speech, or at some (possibly unknown) time in the past. Passé composé originally corresponded in function to the English present perfect, and is still used as such (e.g. J'ai fini may mean "I have finished"), but it is now used more generally as a perfective past tense (expressing single completed events in the past, like the English "I finished"). It is commonly used as a "narration tense" for oral and written narration. Note that in formal writing, even for children, narration is usually done with the passé simple instead of the passé composé.

Passé composé is formed using an auxiliary verb and the past participle of a verb.

Auxiliary verbs[edit]

The auxiliary verb is typically avoir ("to have"), but sometimes être ("to be").

This is the conjugation of avoir:

j'ai  (I have)                   nous avons    (we have)
tu as (you have)                 vous avez     (you have)
il/elle/on a  (he/she/it has)    ils/elles ont (they have)

This is the conjugation of être:

je suis  (I am)                    nous sommes (we are)
tu es    (you are)                 vous êtes   (you are)
il/elle/on est   (he/she/it is)    ils/elles sont    (they are)

The following is a list of verbs that use être and avoir as their auxiliary verbs in passé composé:

  • Devenir – to become – devenu
  • Revenir – to come back – revenu
  • Monter – to go up – monté
  • Rester – to stay – resté
  • Sortir– to exit – sorti
  • Passer – to pass by (this case only) – passé
  • Venir – to come – venu
  • Aller – to go – allé
  • Naître – to be born – né
  • Descendre – to descend – descendu
  • Entrer – to enter – entré
  • Retourner – to return – retourné
  • Tomber – to fall – tombé
  • Rentrer- to re-enter- rentré
  • Arriver – to arrive – arrivé
  • Mourir – to die – mort
  • Partir – to leave – parti

The above are commonly remembered using the acronym DR and MRS P. VANDERTRAMP. In addition to these, at least one other verb is conjugated with être:

  • Décéder – to decease – décédé

The verbs that use être as an auxiliary verb are intransitive verbs that usually indicate motion or change of state. Since some of these verbs can be used as a transitive verb as well, they will instead take avoir as an auxiliary in those instances; e.g. Il a sorti un outil pour le réparer.

In addition to the above verbs, all reflexive/pronominal verbs use être as their auxiliary verb. A reflexive verb is a verb that relates back to the speaker, e.g. Je me suis trompé.

French trems To form the past participle for first-group verbs (-ER verbs) and aller too, drop the -er and add .

parler (to speak)    - er + é = parlé (spoken)
arriver (to arrive)  - er + é = arrivé (arrived)
manger (to eat)      - er + é = mangé (eaten)

To form the past participle for second-group verbs (-IR verbs with -ISSANT gerund), drop the -ir and add -i.

finir (to finish)    - ir + i = fini (finished)
choisir (to choose)  - ir + i = choisi (chosen)
grandir (to grow up) - ir + i = grandi (grown up)

To form the past participle for third-group verbs (-RE verbs), drop the -re and add -u.

pendre (to hang)     - re + u = pendu (hung or sometimes hanged)
vendre (to sell)     - re + u = vendu (sold)
entendre (to hear)   - re + u = entendu (heard)
  • The irregular past participles (which are often found with the third group verbs) must be memorized separately, of which the following are a few:
acquérir:    acquis      (acquired)
apprendre:   appris      (learnt/learned)
atteindre:   atteint     (attained)
attendre:    attendu     (waited)
avoir:       eu          (had)
battre:      battu       (beaten)
boire:       bu          (drunk/drunken)
comprendre:  compris     (understood)
conduire:    conduit     (driven)
connaître:   connu       (known)
construire:  construit   (constructed)
courir:      couru       (run)
couvrir:     couvert     (covered)
craindre:    craint      (feared)
croire:      cru         (believed)
décevoir:    déçu        (disappointed)
découvrir:   découvert   (discovered)
devoir:                (had to)
dire:        dit         (said)
écrire:      écrit       (written)
être:        été         (been)
faire:       fait        (done)
instruire:   instruit    (prepared)
joindre:     joint       (joined)
lire:           lu          (read)
mettre:      mis         (put, placed)
offrir:      offert      (offered)
ouvrir:      ouvert      (opened)
paraître:    paru        (come out)
peindre:     peint       (painted)
pouvoir:     pu          (been able to)
prendre:     pris        (taken)
produire:    produit     (produced)
recevoir:    reçu        (received)
savoir:      su          (known)
souffrir:    souffert    (hurt)
surprendre:  surpris     (surprised)
suivre:      suivi       (followed)
tenir:       tenu        (held, holden)
venir:       venu        (come)
vivre:       vécu        (lived)
voir:        vu          (seen)
vouloir:     voulu       (wanted)

Formation[edit]

The passé composé is formed by the auxiliary verb followed by the past participle:

J'ai vu (I saw)

Tu as parlé (You spoke)

Le garçon est sorti (The boy went out)

  • The passé composé is usually translated into English as a simple past tense, "I saw". More rarely it might be translated as a present perfect, "I have seen", or an emphatic past tense, "I did see".
  • The past participle almost always agrees with the subject when the auxiliary verb is être. When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle must agree with the direct object if the direct object precedes the past participle in the sentence. In French, agreement is accomplished by adding an -e to the end of the past participle if the subject or direct object in question is feminine and an -s if it is plural. (Note that for verbs of the first and second group, the past participle ends with a vowel, thus the masculine and feminine, singular and plural forms are all pronounced the same. Within the third-group verbs, one can find past participles ending with a mute consonant, such as mis and fait, and those do change pronunciation.)

Les hommes sont arrivés. (The men arrived.)

Les filles sont venues. (The girls came.)

Nous nous sommes levé(e)s. (We got up, extra e required if nous refers to a group of females.)

J'ai vu la voiture. (I saw the car) Je l'ai vue. (I saw it, referring to the car)

Les voitures que j'ai vues étaient rouges. (The cars that I saw were red, que relative to Les voitures, feminine plural)

Où sont mes lunettes ? Où est-ce que je les ai mises ? (Where are my glasses? Where did I put them?)

Voilà l'erreur que j'ai faite. (There's the mistake I made, que relative to l'erreur, feminine singular)

See also[edit]

References[edit]