The perfect tense: How to talk about the past in French
When to use the passé composé (perfect tense)
The passé composé (perfect tense) is used to talk about things that happened in the past. It is often used with past time phrases:
- J’ai joué au foot hier - I played football yesterday.
- Tu as mangé un sandwich à midi? - Did you eat a sandwich for lunch?
- Elle a regardé un film le week-end dernier - She watched a film last weekend.
Here are some useful past time phrases:
|hier soir||yesterday evening / last night|
|lundi dernier||last Monday|
|la semaine dernière||last week|
|le mois dernier||last month|
|l’année dernière||last year|
How to form the passé composé
To form the passé composé, you need three parts:
1. A noun or pronoun such as je (I), tu (you), or il/elle (he/she).
2. An auxiliary verb - this is either avoir (to have) or être (to be).
3. A past participle such as joué (played) or regardé (watched).
The auxiliary verb avoir needs to change according to who did the action (I, you, he, she, etc) but the past participle stays the same.
Forming past participles with regular verbs
Regular -ER verbs
Most verbs in French end with -er. To form the past participle of an -ER verb, you need to remove the -er from the infinitive and add -é:
- jouer (to play) - j’ai joué - I played.
- manger (to eat) - il a mangé - He ate.
- habiter (to live) - tu as habité où? - Where did you live?
- regarder (to watch) - j’ai regardé - I watched.
Regular -IR verbs
To make the past participle of a regular -IR verb, you need to remove the -ir from the infinitive and add -i:
- finir (to finish) - j’ai fini - I finished.
- choisir (to choose) - tu as choisi? - Did you choose?
Regular -RE verbs
To form the past participle of regular -RE verbs, you remove the -re from the infinitive and add -u:
- vendre (to sell) - j’ai vendu - I sold.
- entendre (to hear) - elle a entendu - she heard.
Irregular past participles in the passé composé
Some common verbs have irregular past participles in the passé composé. This means that they don’t follow the same rules as regular verbs.
Here are some useful irregular verbs and their past participles with examples:
|English||french infinitive||past participle||Example|
|to have||avoir||eu||J’ai eu un accident - I had an accident.|
|to be||être||été||Tu as été malade? - Have you been ill?|
|to do||faire||fait||Il a fait ses devoirs - He did his homework.|
|to drink||boire||bu||Elle a bu du jus d’orange - She drank orange juice.|
|to take||prendre||pris||J’ai pris une photo - I took a photo. |
Forming the passé composé with être
With some verbs, such as aller, you need to use the auxiliary verb être, followed by a past participle:
- Je suis allé au supermarché - I went to the supermarket.
- Tu es allé à Nottingham? - Did you go to Nottingham?
- Il est allé au parc - He went to the park.
If you are talking to or about a female person, the past participle needs to agree with the person as an adjective would. An ‘e’ is added to the end of the past participle. This is only when the auxiliary verb is être.
- Je suis allée à Nice - I (female) went to Nice.
- Tu es allée en Espagne? - Did you (female) go to Spain?
- Elle est allée au centre sportif - She went to the sports centre.
Here are some other useful verbs that take être as their auxiliary verb, with some examples:
|English||French infinitive||Past participle||Example|
|to stay||rester||resté||Je suis resté(e) chez moi - I stayed at home.|
|to leave / go out||sortir||sorti||Elle est sortie de la maison - She left the house.|
|to arrive||arriver||arrivé||Tu es arrivé(e) quand? - When did you arrive?|
Find out how much you know about the perfect tense in French with this short quiz.
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