Le Passé Composé – The Complete Guide [Updated for 2018]

If you’ve come to this article you’re likely looking for some help with learning the French passé composé. Well you’ve come to the right place because we’ve put together the most complete guide to the passé composé found anywhere on the net.

In this guide we won’t be using many technical or hard-to-understand terms as these do nothing but hinder your progress in understanding what you are trying to learn.

Let’s get started…

 

What is the Passé Composé?

The passé composé is one form of the French past tense that is used in instances where an event has taken place either at a single point in time in the past, or possibly multiple times in the past, but it’s not important or relevant to what is being asked.

Let’s look at an example together…

Let’s say that you are walking home and the man in front of you accidentally drops his wallet without noticing. You, being the good samaritan that you are, pick it up, run after him and shout,

« Monsieur, vous avez fait tomber votre portefeuille » (“Sir, you dropped your wallet”, or “sir, you’ve dropped your wallet if you live in the UK”).

The above example is a perfect situation where you would use the passé composé because it’s a situation that occurred at a single moment of time in the past. Pretty easy, right?

But what about the other instance that I mentioned? An event that occurred possibly multiple times in the past, but irrelevant to the situation?

Here’s an example:

« Avez-vous vu ce film ? » (“Have you seen this movie?”) or “Did you see this movie?”)

For our example the first definition (“Have you seen this movie?”) is what is important to us.

Think about it, if someone asks you if you have seen a movie they are just asking if at some point between your birth and now if you have seen the movie. Perhaps you’ve seen it a thousand times, but that’s not what’s being asked.

The Passé Composé takes place at a single point in time or perhaps multiple times
The Passé Composé takes place at a single point in time or perhaps multiple times

If someone wanted to ask if you had seen a movie at a specific point in time they would ask, “Did you see the movie?” usually stating or implying a point in time such as yesterday or last week.

Both of these examples (“have you seen this movie?” AND “did you see this movie?”) are covered under the passé composé, which actually makes it easier than English when you think about it.

Let’s look at another example of the passé composé together.

« As-tu mangé des sushis ? » – “Did you eat sushi?” (implying a specific point of time as in “did you eat sushi yesterday?”)

« As-tu mangé des sushis ? » – “Have you eaten sushi?” (if it helps put the word “ever” in there, as in “have you ever eaten sushi?”

 

How do you Form the Passé Composé?

We’ll be discussing a lot of these points in more detail later in the article, but you can get a basic idea of it right here.

Here is how you form a basic sentence using the passé composé…

First take the subject of the sentence such as « Je », « Tu », « Il », « Elle », « Nous », « Vous », «Ils », « Elles ».

Then add the helping verb, this is either « avoir » or « être » (again, we’ll go over this later)

Then add the past participle of the main verb. Just think of the past participle as the past-tense version of a verb. For example, in English the past participle of the verb “to walk” is “walked” and the past participle of the verb “to eat” is “ate”.

The past participle of regular verbs that end in ER end in “é” (manger – mangé)

The past participle of regular verbs that end in IR end in “i” (choisir – choisi)

The past participle of regular verbs that end in RE end in “u” (défendre – défendu)

For irregular verbs you’ll just have to look them up individually and memorize them as best as possible

 

So what Makes the Passé Composé Difficult ?

Now I know that you’re thinking, “well if it’s really this simple why do so many people have difficulty with this?”

Well there’s a few reasons for this:

  1. Things get a little funky with common irregular verbs
  2. Sometimes, in colloquial English, what we say overlaps with the French Imparfait
  3. The auxiliary (helping) verbs avoir and être get in the way and make things difficult

 

The Passé Composé is Difficult Because of Common Irregular Verbs

Let’s start with the first one: Things get a little funky with irregular verbs. To better explain this let’s look at some of the most commonly used verbs in the French language.

The verb we’ll use is aller (to go)

« Je suis allé(e) en France » – “I went to France” / “I have been to France”

« Tu n’es pas allé(e) en France » – “You did not go to France” / “You have not been to France”

As you can see, although these examples are pretty simple you have to turn things around a bit. It’s not as simple as a verb such as marcher where its form in the passé composé translates to “I walked” or “I have walked”.

You have to really think about what we would say for an action that occurred in the past at a single time or potentially multiple times.

Another verb that throws things off course is the verb devoir (to have to)

« J’ai du oublier mon portefeuille » – “I must have forgotten my wallet”

« J’ai du quitter la maison » – “I had to leave the house”

The verb devoir translates to “to have to” or “to must”. In the present tense you could say something like « Je dois faire mes devoirs » (I must do my homework).

The above sentences (and other verbs like it) are difficult for any normal person to figure out on their own.

The best way to learn them is through examples and real-life context.

Sometimes it’s just better to take things as they are instead of trying to find some real logic to them.

Fortunately for us French learners the only verbs that pose any sort of problems like this are common irregular ones. 

The French Passe Compose Can Be Difficult for Several Reasons
The French Passé Composé Can Be Difficult for Several Reasons

The Passé Composé is Difficult Because it Overlaps with the Imparfait in Colloquial English

Let’s move on to the next point that was brought up: “Sometimes in informal English what we say overlaps with the other form of the French past tense, the imparfait”.

To better understand this, let’s look at an example:

« Quand j’étais plus jeune je regardais souvent ce film » – “When I was young I watched that movie a lot”.

If you’ve learned anything about the imparfait you’d know that it’s used to describe an event that happened repeatedly in the past, or during a period of time that can’t be nailed down to a single instance (we’re going to discuss this more in another article so don’t get too weighed down by the details).

Typically, in English, an event that happens repeatedly in the past can be described using “used to” or “would”.

For example: “I used to watch that movie a lot when I was young” or “I would watch that movie a lot”.

However the point here is that sometimes we simply say “I watched that movie a lot” when we should really use one of the other forms.

Seeing as the sentence “I watched that movie” can be translated by « J’ai regardé ce film » it’s only natural to assume that the sentence « I watched that movie a lot » would also use the passé composé.

A general rule is that if you could add the words “would” or “used to” to the English sentence then you should use the imparfait.

 

The Passé Composé is Difficult is Because of Auxiliary/Helping Verbs

The final point that was brought up was the pain in the neck of auxiliary verbs.

We did say that we aren’t going to use many technical terms here so we are going to avoiding using the term “auxiliary verbs” from here on out.

Let’s define exactly what these verbs are before we proceed with some examples. What we are talking about here are a certain type of verb that doesn’t describe any sort of action, but rather helps to change the meaning of another verb.

Let’s see it in context so that you can understand it better.

When we think of the verb “to have” in English we picture ourselves owning, possessing or even holding something. Some examples of this may include:

 

“I have a car”

“I have a house”

“I have a sandwich”

 

However we also use the verb “to have” in sentences such as:

 

“I have seen the movie”

“I have eaten at that restaurant”

“I have been to many countries”

 

The verb “to have” in the above sentences is simply used to modify the meaning of the verb next to it.

Although all of the above sentences contain the verb “to have” we don’t imagine the sense of owning, possessing, or holding anything.

It’s just simply a verb that’s thrown in there to help out the next verb.

So what is the difficulty here?

Well in the French past tense there are two main “helping verbs” that we encounter.

The first one is « avoir » which of course we know as the verb “to have” in English and the other is the verb « être » which we know as the verb “to be”.

Most verbs in French use the verb « avoir » when you put them in the passé composé, and for the most part English speakers are able to understand this no problem.

However, there are a handful of verbs that use « être ».

Most of us know the verb « être » to mean “to be” such as in the sentence

« Je suis français » – “I am French”

The verb « être » as a helping verb is also used exactly in the same sense as « avoir » meaning that it helps out the verb next to it. 

There are only a handful of verbs that this applies to however. Here are some examples:

« Je suis tombé(e) » – “I fell” / “I have fallen”

« Il est parti » – “He left” / “He has left”

The difficulty is that because learners see « Je suis » and « Il est » they get confused and think of the sentences as “I am fallen” or “He is left”.

My advice to anyone facing this issue is to not take « Je suis » or « Tu es » as “I am” or “you are” when dealing with these type of helping verbs. Take it as “I have” or “you have”

Another time that the verb « être » is used as a helping verb is when using verbs that have « me », « te », « se », nous, or vous in front of them.

These are technically known as reflexive verbs, but the name isn’t too important.

You may recognize verbs like « se réveiller »  or « s’endormir ».

When you encounter a verb that starts with « se » or « s » you have to change the « se/s’ » depending on who is actioning the verb. This can be quite tricky to explain easily so here are some quick examples:

First let’s look at this chart

Reflexive Verbs
Je me
Nous nous
Tu te
Vous vous
Il/elle seIls/elles se

If you are using a verb that starts with « se » or « s’ » (if in front of a vowel) then you have to change the « se » or « s’ » to match the person or object that is performing the action.

Just look at the charts above and below for reference if you need it.

Le Verbe « Se Réveiller »
Je me suis réveillé(e)
Nous nous sommes réveillé(e)s
Tu t'es réveillé(e)Vous vous êtes réveillé(e)s
Il/elle/on s'est réveillé(e)Ils/elles se sont réveillé(e)s

Neither of the above verbs are found on the list of verbs that use « être ». However, because they are reflexive (they have the word « se ») then you have to use « être » when employing the passé composé.

Remember, this only applies when you are talking about someone doing something to themselves. Here are more quick examples

« Il a réveillé le chien » – “He woke the dog”

« Il s’est réveillé » – “He woke up” (“We woke up himself”)

« J’ai regardé mon ami à travers la fenêtre » – “I watched my friend through the mirror”

« Je me suis regardé dans le miroir » – “I watched myself in the mirror”

If the person is doing the action to someone else then it’s not reflexive and thus you don’t need to use « être ».

If the person doing the action is doing it to themselves then it is reflexive and you must use the passé composé.

 

The Passé Composé and Agreements

One final point that I’d like to bring up regarding the passé composé is agreements.

All this means is that in some situations we’ll be adding an “e”, an “s”, or both to the end of the verb depending on a few different factors.

We’ll be covering this in a future article so we don’t have to go over it in great detail here, but it does apply to the passé composé so it’s worth at least mentioning. Here’s a quick guide to it all.

When using a verb that uses « être » you must add an “e” to the verb if what you are talking about is feminine. This means either a person or an object uses « la » instead of « le ».

If what you are speaking about is plural then you will add an “s”. If it is both feminine and plural then you add both. Here are some quick examples:

« Je suis restée chez moi » – “I stayed home / I have stayed home”

« Ma voiture est tombée en panne » – “My car broke down / My car has broke down”

« Elles sont devenues amies » – “They became friends”

In all of the above sentences the main subject of the sentence is feminine, whether it be a person or an object.

Remember this only  applies if you are using a verb that uses « être ».

In case you aren’t aware, the following list includes all the verbs that use « être » instead of « avoir ».

You may be familiar the acronym DR (and) MRS P VANDERTRAMP which comes from the first letter of each of these verbs when placed in the following order.

Verbs that use « être »

French Verbs That Use être  
Devenir – To becomeSortir – To exit (leave)
Descendre – To go down (descend)Rentrer – To re-enter
Revenir – To come backVenir – To comeEntrer – To enterArriver – To arrive
Monter – To go upAller – To go
Retourner – To returnMourir – To die
Rester – To stayNaître – To be bornTomber – To fallPartir – To leave

Now there are situations where you do add an extra “e”, “s”, or both when using the verb « avoir ». It’s a little more difficult however. Let’s see if we can clarify it a little bit.

If the main subject of the sentence is feminine, plural or both, and it comes before the verb, then you add an “e”, “s” or both. Here are a few examples:

La fille que j’ai vue s’appelait Marie – The girl I saw was named Marie

La montre qu’il a achetée était chère – The watch that I bought was expensive

Je l’ai cassée – I broke it (implies the object is feminine)

Hopefully this guide has given you a great handle on what exactly is the French passé composé and how to use it.

Being one of the most basic grammar elements of the French language it’s something that you encounter very often.

Do you have anything to add? How did you go about mastering the passé composé and what advice would you recommend to others trying to do the same?

Do you still have questions that you need answered? Comment below and tell us all about it!

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