French Grammar Guide for non-francophones

Passé Composé (e.g.: j'ai parlé)

An Overview of the Passé Composé

The passé composé is used to describe an action completed in the past. It is called composé ("compound") because it has two parts: a) an auxiliary (usually a form of avoir) and b) a past participle (e.g.: parlé). Unlike the imperfect, which is used to describe situations in the past, the passé composé is used to describe relatively succinct events that have taken place, e.g.: J'ai acheté un ordinateur hier soir.

How to form the passé composé

The passé composé is formed by using the present tense of avoir, followed by the past participle. This is illustrated in the following table:

passé composé Translation
j'ai parlé "I spoke"/"I have spoken"
tu as parlé "you spoke/you have spoken"
il,elle, on a parlé "he, she, one spoke/has spoken"
nous avons parlé "we spoke/we have spoken"
vous avez parlé "you spoke/you have spoken"
ils/elles ont parlé "they spoke/they have spoken"

How to form the past participle?

Most past participles are formed by dropping the infinitive's ending and adding , for -er verbs (e.g.: parlé), -u for -re verbs (e.g.: rendu) and -i for -ir verbs (e.g.: fini). That said, a number of common verbs do have irregular past participles. Some of the most common are:

avoir: j'ai eu

être: j'ai été

voir: j'ai vu

faire: j'ai fait

dire: j'ai dit

savoir: j'ai su

prendre: j'ai pris

 

Avoir or être anyone?

While the vast majority of verbs form their passé composé with avoir, a number of verbs (most of which describe actions of "coming" and "going") form their passé composé with être, e.g.: je suis allé ("I went"), elle est venue, nous sommes arrivés.

We provide an overview of the choice between avoir and être here.

Past participle agreement

In many contexts, the past participle must agree with a preceding noun or pronoun. The two main scenarios where this happens are:

a) when a direct object precedes the verb, e.g.: La pomme que j'ai mangée; des filles que j'ai vues

b) when a feminine or plural subject is used with an "être" verb, e.g: elle est allée; ils sont partis

In addition to these two main contexts, there are some details we discuss in the section on past participles.

Verb conjugation:
 
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