French Grammar Guide for non-francophones

Past Participles (e.g.: parlé, venu, parti)

An Overview of French Past Participles

The past participle form of the verb is usually found after the auxiliaries avoir (j'ai parlé) and être (e.g.: je suis allé). Most forms are predictable and show agreement under certain circumstances, unless followed by a noun phrase (e.g.: les mains).

How to Form the Past Participle

The past participle is formed by replacing the infinitive ending with:

  • for -er verbs, e.g.: parler > j'ai parlé
  • -i for -ir verbs, e.g.: finir > j'ai fini
  • -u for -re verbs, e.g.: descendre > j'ai descendu

Some common irregular past participles you should be familiar with are:

avoir: j'ai eu ("I had", e.g.: J'ai eu des problèmes)

être: j'ai été ("I was", e.g.: J'ai été surpris)

voir: j'ai vu ("I saw", e.g.: J'ai vu ta soeur)

faire: j'ai fait ("I did/I made", e.g.: J'ai fait mes devoirs)

dire: j'ai dit ("I said", e.g.: J'ai dit que je viendrais)

savoir: j'ai su ("I knew/found out", e.g.: Je l'ai su hier)

prendre: j'ai pris ("I took", e.g.: J'ai pris un comprimé)

pouvoir: j'ai pu ("I could/was able", e.g.: J'ai pu l'aider)

devoir: j'ai  ("I had to/needed to), e.g.: J'ai dû faire la vaisselle)

Past Participle Agreement

Subject Agreement

When the auxiliary used is être, the past participle needs to agree in number and gender with the subject (you can find a list of the verbs that use the auxiliary être here). For example:

  • Ils sont partis
  • Elle est allée
  • Nous sommes devenus

When the auxiliary is avoir, the past participle does not agree with the subject (e.g.: Ils ont décidé).

Object Agreement

When a direct object precedes the verb, the past participle agrees with it in number and gender, e.g.:

  • ... la pomme que j'ai mangée
  • ... des filles que j'ai vues

However, no such agreement takes place if the direct object follows the verb, e.g.:

  • j'ai mangé la pomme
  • j'ai vu des filles

Indirect objects (involving a preposition), on the other hand, never cause the past participle to change, even if they precede e.g.:

  • ... la femme de qui j'ai parlé
  • la personne à qui j'ai donné le livre

Agreement with Pronominal Verbs

As with other verbs that form their passé composé with être, pronominal verbs show agreement between the subject and the past participle when possible, e.g.:

  • Elle s'est réveillée
  • Ils se sont vus

The main exception to this rule is when a direct object follows, in which case agreement is not made (e.g.: Elle s'est lavé les mains). Also, agreement is not made if the pronominal functions as an indirect object, e.g.: Elles se sont parlé. Other verbs of this latter type are: s'acheter, se demander, se dire, se donner, s'écrire, se faire mal, s'imaginer, se parler, se plaire, se procurer, se promettre, se raconter, se rendre compte de, se rendre visite, se reprocher, se ressembler, se rire, se sourire, se téléphoner).

Exceptions for Past Agreement

The general rule is that that past participle needs to agree with a preceding direct object. There are some cases though where this does not occur. The most common (not that any are all that common!) are cases involving the following verbs (valoir, coûter, peser, vivre, courir), e.g.:

  • La somme importante que cette réparation a valu.
  • Les deux mille euros que cette affaire m'a coûté.
  • Les livres que ce colis a pesé.
  • Les années que j'ai vécu.
  • Les heures que j'ai couru.

In cases like these where agreement does not take place, the preceding noun answers the question "how many" or "how much". One indication that agreement does not take place is that the verb describes length of time, distance, price or weight.

Another case where the past participle doesn't change involves the verbs faire and laisser when they are followed by an infinitive, e.g.:

  • Je les ai fait comprendre.
  • Elle nous a laissé partir.

When the past participle of other verbs is followed by an infinitive, the general rule is that if the object functions as the subject of the infinitive, you need to show agreement, e.g.:

  • Les femmes que j'ai vues manger

However, if first subject functions as direct object of the infinitive, there is no agreement, e.g.:

  • Les pommes que j'ai vu manger

We don't make the rules, we just try to explain them! Doing the exercises and writing with BonPatron will help you master both the general rules (theses are the most important) and the exceptions (you know, if you want to get an "A" on your assignment!).

Verb conjugation:
 
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