Perfect Tense in French

Instructor: Jennifer Chrol

I have a Master's degree in English and French. I love teaching language at all ages and levels.

In this lesson, learn how to talk about things you did in the past using the perfect tense. We discuss which verbs are paired with etre and avoir, how to form the past participle, and rules for gender, number, and direct objects.

The Perfect Tense

So, you've decided to have a French penpal, but you've only been able to write about things that are happening in the present. You have some great stories about things you did last summer, so the only thing left to do is learn some new forms. Being able to describe past events is the second most important part of learning French. The two most common past tense verb forms are the perfect (passé composé) and the imperfect (imparfait). In this lesson, we will focus on the passé composé.

In order to conjugate a verb in the passé composé, you will need to know the present tense conjugation of the two French verbs être and avoir and the past participle of the verb you want to use. Let's start with être and avoir. The charts below will show you how to conjugate the verbs.

Subject Pronoun Verb avoir Pronunciation Translation
j ai zhay I have
tu as tü ah you have (informal/singular)
il/elle/on a eel/el/ohn ah he/she has
nous avons noo zahv-ohn we have
vous avez voo zahv-ay you have (formal/plural)
ils/elles ont eel/el zohn they have
  • Note that je becomes j' before a vowel.

Subject Pronoun Verb être Pronunciation Translation
je suis zhu swee I am
tu es tü ay you are (informal/singular)
il/elle/on est eel/el/ohn ay he/she is
nous sommes noo sahm we are
vous êtes voo zeht you are (formal/plural)
ils/elles sont eel/el sohn they are

Past Participles

Now that you know the main verbs to conjugate in the past tense, you need to know some past participles. For example, the past participle for avoir is eu and it is conjugated with avoir. So, if you want to say 'I had a cold,' you would say J'ai eu une rhûme (zhay ö ön röm.)

The great thing about past participles is that there is just one for each verb, although there are some cases where they will be altered. The verb that changes is the helper avoir or être. So, whether you are saying I, you, he, we, or they, the past participle for avoir will remain eu.

  • Il a eu une rhûme. (He had a cold.)
  • Nous avons eu une rhûme. (We had a cold.)
  • Elles ont eu une rhûme. (They had a cold.)

Here is a chart with past participles for regular verbs:

Verb Type Past Participle Pronunciation
-er é ay
-ir i ee
-re u ö

Past Participles with Avoir

Almost all past participles are paired with avoir. Here are some examples of regular verbs:

Verb Past Participle
parler parlé
finir fini
repondre repondu

Translation: The birds were talking yesterday.

For irregular verbs, you have to memorize the past participles. Here are some examples:

Verb Past Participle
avoir eu
être été
comprendre compris
lire lu

Past Participles with Être

There are two groups of verbs that are conjugated with être: some of the verbs of movement, and reflexive verbs. Reflexive verbs are verbs such as se lever (to get up), se coucher (to go to bed), se laver (to wash up) etc.; they will always use être.

For certain verbs of movement, there is a little trick you can use. You may have heard the acronym DR and MRS VANDERTRAMP. This is one very helpful way to remember the movement verbs that are conjugated with être.

Descendre Rentrer and Monter Retourner Sortir

Venir Aller Naître Devenir Entrer Rester Tomber Revenir Arriver Mourir Partir.

Altering the Past Participle

There are a few instances where the past participle will be altered.

Past Participles with Avoir

Past participles will change with avoir only when there is a direct object that comes before the past participle. For example, if my mom bought me flowers for my birthday, and someone compliments them, I would say, Merci, ma mère les a achetées. (Thanks, my mom bought them.) Here we see that the flowers are both feminine and plural and come before the past participle, so we alter the past participles to show feminine and plural. But, anytime the direct object comes after the past participle, you do not have to change the past participle with avoir.

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