Learning the French Past Tense

Le Passé Composé: Learning the French Past Tense

Le passé composé is a French verb conjugation for the past tense, and the most common of the three ways to express the French past tense. The other one that people actually use is l’imparfait. There is also le passé simple, which you will see in novels, but any French tutor will tell you there is no need to worry about knowing how to use it in conversation.

When to use le passé composé

Le passé composé is the easiest and most English speaker-friendly French past tense conjugation. This guide will cover when it is appropriate to use le passé composé, the two parts of passé composé conjugation, how passé composé with avoir differs from passé composé with être, and how le passé composé differs from the other kinds of French past tense conjugation.


Le passé composé is used for describing events that took place completely in the past, instead of events in the past that are currently ongoing, a person’s physical or emotional states during past events, past habitual occurrences (“used to”), or events that were ongoing while something else was happening. In those cases, the appropriate tense is imparfait.

You do not use le passé simple unless, well, you’re Victor Hugo.

How to conjugate le passé composé

Le passé composé is a compound tense, meaning two components are needed to conjugate a verb: the helping verb (or the auxiliary verb) and the past participle.

The helping verb is either avoir or être, conjugated in present tense. The past participle is the main verb modified to express the past.,You know how in English you might say “I have read the book?” Le passé composé is basically the same idea, with a similar flow, but a few key details are different.

Helping verbs

To begin, let’s review how to conjugate avoir and être in the present tense:

Avoir, present tense

When deciding whether to use avoir or être to conjugate in the passé composé, always choose avoir. It’s the most common helping verb, and usually the one you need.

  • J’ai
  • Tu as
  • Il/Elle/On a
  • Nous avons
  • Vous avez
  • Ils/Elles ont

Être, present tense

Être is less common than avoir, but a few common French verbs use it when conjugated in the passé composé.

  • Je suis
  • Tu es
  • Il/Elle/On est
  • Nous sommes
  • Vous êtes
  • Ils/Elles sont

Past participles

With an auxiliary verb, the past participle forms a compound tense. The majority of French verbs are regular, and forming their past participle is easy:

If the infinitive ends in -er, the participle ends in é

Examples: parler (to speak) = parlé, donner (to give) = donné, and tomber (to fall) = tombé

If the infinitive ends in -ir, the participle ends in i

Examples: finir (to finish) = fini, partir (to leave) = parti, and dormir (to sleep) = dormi

If the infinitive ends in -re, the participle ends in u

Examples: attendre (to wait) = attendu, descendre (to go down) = descendu, and ascendre (to go up) = ascendu


Irregular verbs

Some irregular French verbs require that you look up individual past participle conjugations. Some notable irregular past participles include:

Avoir: eu (had) Boire: bu (drank) Conduire: conduit (driven) Connaître: connu (known) Croire: cru (believed) Devoir: du (had) Dire: dit (said) Écrire: écrit (written) Être: été (been) Faire: fait (made, done) Lire: lu (read) Mettre: mis (put) Offrir: offrit (offered) Ouvrir: ouvert (opened) Pleuvoir: plu (rained) Pouvoir: pu (been able to) Prendre : pris (taken) Recevoir: reçu (received) Savoir: su (known) Venir: venu (came) Voir: vu (seen) Vouloir: voulu (wanted)

Some patterns to help you remember them:

  • Past participles of verbs that end in “-ire” end in “-it”
  • Past participles of verbs that end in “-aitre” end in “u”
  • Past participles of verbs that end in “-enir” end in “-enu”
  • Past participles of verbs that end in “-endre” end in “-pris”

Passé composé examples: Avoir

Let’s start off with the easiest ones: avoir constructions with regular past participles.

Parler (to speak)

  • J’ai parlé
  • Tu as parlé
  • Il/Elle/On a parlé
  • Nous avons parlé
  • Vous avez parlé
  • Ils/Elles ont parlé

Punir (to punish)

  • J’ai puni
  • Tu as puni
  • Il/Elle/On a puni
  • Nous avons puni
  • Vous avez puni
  • Ils/Elles ont puni

Vendre (to sell)

  • J’ai vendu
  • Tu as vendu
  • Il/Elle/On a vendu
  • Nous avons vendu
  • Vous avez vendu
  • Ils/Elles ont vendu

Now let’s see some with irregular past participles:

Lire (to read)

  • J’ai lu
  • Tu as lu
  • Il/Elle/On a lu
  • Nous avons lu
  • Vous avez lu
  • Ils/Elles ont lu

Connaitre (to know, be familiar with)

  • J’ai connu
  • Tu as connu
  • Il/Elle/On a connu
  • Nous avons connu
  • Vous avez connu
  • Ils/Elles ont connu

Prendre (to take)

  • J’ai pris
  • Tu as pris
  • Il/Elle/On a pris
  • Nous avons pris
  • Vous avez pris
  • Ils/Elle ont pris

Avoir (to have)

  • J’ai eu
  • Tu as eu
  • Il/Elle/On a eu
  • Nous avons eu
  • Vous avez eu
  • Ils/Elles ont eu

Être (to be)

  • J’ai été
  • Tu as été
  • Il/Elle/On a été
  • Nous avons été
  • Vous avez été
  • Ils/Elles ont été

Faire (to make, to do)

  • J’ai fait
  • Tu as fait
  • Il/Elle/On a fait
  • Nous avons fait
  • Vous avez fait
  • Ils/Elles ont fait

Using avoir vs être

There is a classic mnemonic for the verbs that use être for both passé composé and futur antérieur: DR. AND MRS. VAN DER TRAMPP


Each letter in this acronym represents the beginning of a verb that uses être as a helping verb when conjugated in the passé composé:

Devenir (to come from) Revenir (to come back, to return) & Monter (to go up, climb) Rester (to stay) Sortir (to go out) Venir (to come) Aller (to go) Naître (to be born) Descendre (to come down) Entrer (to enter) Rentrer (to return) Tomber (to fall) Retourner (to return) Arriver (to arrive, to come) Mourir (to die) Partir (to leave) Passer (to pass [by])

You may notice a theme: all of these verbs are related to coming and going, including the big coming and going of birth and death. All reflexive verbs also use être.

How subject-verb agreement applies

Le passé composé constructions using avoir do not have to match the grammatical gender of the subject, but constructions using être do.

For example, elle a lu le livre (she has read the book) is completely acceptable, but not elle est parti le maison (she has left the house). The correct version of this sentence would be elle est partie la maison. Subject-verb agreement is something that you will have to think about a lot more often if you’re a woman.

This also means for plural constructions using être, you have to add “-s” to the end of the past participle to make it plural as well. This makes Ils ont acheté les chausseurs (he has bought the shoes) correct, but the corresponding statement about returning those shoes would be “Ils sont retournés” (they have returned).

For constructions using être with elles or nous or vous referring to multiple women, tack on “-es” to the past participle. If the last example were about a different group of people, it would be Elles sont retournées.

Passé composé examples: Être

Aller (to go)

  • Je suis allé(e)
  • Tu es allé(e)
  • Il est allé
  • Elle est allée
  • On est allé
  • Nous sommes allé(e)s
  • Vous êtes allé(e)s
  • Ils sont allés
  • Elles sont allées

Sortir (to leave)

  • Je suis sorti(e)
  • Tu es sorti(e)
  • Il est sorti
  • Elle est sortie
  • On est sorti
  • Nous sommes sorti(e)s
  • Vous êtes sorti(e)s
  • Ils sont sortis
  • Elles sont sorties

Descendre (to go down)

  • Je suis descendu(e)
  • Tu es descendu(e)
  • Il est descendu
  • Elle est descendue
  • On est descendu
  • Nous sommes descendu(e)s
  • Vous êtes descendu(e)s
  • Ils sont descendus
  • Elles sont descendues

Venir (to come)

  • Je suis venu(e)
  • Tu es venu(e)
  • Il est venu
  • Elle est venue
  • On est venu
  • Nous somme venu(e)s
  • Vous êtes venu(e)s
  • Ils sont venus
  • Elles sont venues


Negation in passé composé is simple, but not necessarily intuitive. You place ne, pas around the helping verb, and follow it with the past participle. That would make Je n’ai pas vu the correct way to say “I have not seen”, and Il n’est pas mort the correct way to say “he has not died”.

Reflexive verbs

Reflexive verbs are used when the subject and object of a verb (action) are the same. With reflexive verbs, the action always “reflects back” onto the subject. With reflexive verbs, the helper verb is always être. They work like this:

Habiller (to get dressed)

  • Je me suis habillé
  • Tu t’es habillé
  • Il/Elle/On s’est habillé
  • Nous nous sommes habillé
  • Vous vous êtes habillé
  • Ils se sont habillé

Conjugations require a lot of rote memorization. You get better at them by using them, so if you’re planning a trip to Paris, studying French tenses is a great place to begin. Le passé composé is easy enough to master with practice alongside a French tutor.

Not only does it make logical sense to English speakers, but the patterns are easy to recognize. And even if you do make mistakes, it’s clear enough that francophones will still know what you are talking about.


Learn more about picking up French as a second language with our indispensable guide.

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