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Master the past tense (passé composé) in 5 lessons

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

On Monday morning, you're calmly drinking a coffee with your French colleagues and then... drama. They pose THE difficult question: "What did you do this weekend?" 🤯 The moment to tell them about your Saturday adventures in the past tense arrives, and it's panic time!


Je suis allé or j’ai allé ? Elle est venu or venue ? Je n’ai rien fait or je n’ai rien fait pas ? The past tense is the source of many problems for French students. And honestly, I understand why! Between the choice of the auxiliary, irregular verbs, agreements, word order... There is something to be perplexed about!


Here are 5 mini lessons to ask yourself the right questions and finally MASTER the past tense! For a more detailed course, don't forget to download our FREE e-book:

- 5 complete lessons

- examples and exercises with corrections for each lesson

- 16 corrected exercises to review everything





Before starting, let us recall the structure of a verb in the past perfect tense: as its name implies, the past perfect tense (passé COMPOSÉ) is a COMPOUND tense. This means that a verb conjugated in the past perfect tense is composed of two parts: the auxiliary (“être” or “avoir” in the present) and the past participle.



1. The choice of auxiliary: être or avoir?


Some verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary "être", this is a list of 17 verbs to learn by heart.


A mnemonic way to more easily remember this list is the couple Dr. & Mrs. Vandertrampp.


Each of their first letters corresponds to the first letter of the verbs that are conjugated with the auxiliary "être".


Examples: Mon fils est devenu médecin.(My son has become a doctor.) Marta est arrivée en retard. (Marta arrived late.)


To this list, we add the reflexive verbs (verbs that are preceded by the pronoun "se" in the infinitive, such as "se lever", "se réveiller", "se maquiller", "s'habiller" ...), which are also conjugated with the auxiliary verb "être" in the past tense passé composé.


Examples: Je me suis levé à 7 heures et mes enfants se sont réveillés à 7h30. (I woke up at 7am and my kids woke up at 7:30am.)



2. The past participle


When you have decided which auxiliary verb you must use, the second thing you must think about is the ending of the past participle. There are regular and irregular past participles.


Regular past participles

Infinitive verb

Past participle

1st group verbs (manger, travailler, aller, parler, arriver…)

Termination: -é (mangé, travaillé, allé, parlé, arrivé…)

2nd group verbs (finir, choisir, grandir...)

Termination: -i (fini, choisi, grandi…)

Examples: Quand j’ai fini le travail, je suis allé au restaurant et j’ai mangé avec des amis. (When I finished work, I went to the restaurant and ate with friends.)




Irregular past participles


Unfortunately, it's not that simple... French is not French without irregular verbs. So there are a lot of irregular past participles that you also have to learn by heart.


Infinitive verbs

Past participles

avoir

eu

être

été

voir

vu

devoir

savoir

su

pouvoir

pu

vivre

vécu

lire

lu

prendre

pris

venir

venu

naître

mourir

mort

Examples: Samedi dernier, un ami est venu chez moi. Il a pris le train et nous avons vu un match de foot au Stade de France. (Last Saturday, a friend came to visit me. He took the train and we watched a football match at the Stade de France.)


Ce chanteur est en 1919 et il est mort en 1980. (This singer was born in 1919 and died in 1980.)




3. The negative form of passé composé


When conjugating a verb in the past tense in the negative, you must be careful of the word order.


For all tenses in French, the negation is composed of two words: "ne" and "pas", placed on each side of the verb. In passé composé, only the auxiliary is placed between "ne" and "pas" and the past participle is placed after the word "pas".

Examples: Je ne suis pas sorti. Il n’est pas allé en vacances. Nous n’avons pas vu ce film.

It is possible to replace "pas" (not) with "jamais" (never) or "rien" (nothing), to give a different meaning to the sentence. The order of the words does not change.


Examples: Ils n’ont jamais visité Paris. Je n’ai rien fait ce week-end.





4. The agreement of the past participle with the auxiliary “être”


Now that you have correctly conjugated your verb, you must think of another rule: when conjugating with the auxiliary "être" (and only the auxiliary "être"), you must agree the past participle in gender (masculine/feminine) and number (singular/plural) with the subject.


This means that you must:

- add an "e" when the subject is singular feminine: ma fille est arrivée, Sandra est partie, elle s’est couchée (my daughter arrived, Sandra left, she went to bed)


- add a "s" when the subject is masculine plural: mes enfants sont nés en 2010, les voisins sont venus hier soir, ils se sont amusés (my children were born in 2010, the neighbors came last night, they had fun)


- add "es" when the subject is plural feminine: les filles sont entrées, elles se sont maquillées

(the girls came in, they put on makeup)



5. Agreement of the past participle with the auxiliary "avoir" (from level A2.2)


When conjugating a verb in the past participle with the auxiliary "avoir", the past participle is not adjusted with the subject. No matter the gender of the subject (masculine/feminine) or the number (singular/plural), the agreement rule does not apply.


We say:

- elle a mangé (she ate), don't write: mangée)

- ils ont dormi (they slept), don't write: dormis).


We agree with the Direct Object Complement (COD) when the COD is placed before the verb.


Example: Ma grand-mère a préparé des pâtisseries. (My grandmother prepared pastries.)


Here "des pâtisseries" is the COD of the verb "a préparé". The COD is placed after the verb so no agreement.


But in the sentence: Les pâtisseries que ma grand-mère a préparées sont délicieuses. (The pastries that my grandmother prepared are delicious. This time "les pâtisseries" is the COD and is placed before the verb so we do the agreement. "The pastries" is a feminine and plural noun, we must add "es" to the end of the past participle.



If you memorize these 5 lessons, you will conjugate the past tense correctly and you will no longer be afraid to speak in French!


For more detailed information and corrected exercises to practice:



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