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Understanding Passé Composé

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020
graphic of a hiker climbing a hill illustration of verbs with être for passé composé

What’s passé composé in English? Use? Conjugations? Agreements? Avoir or être? Clear explanations – I don’t assume you remember grammar – and lots of examples.

1 – What is the French Passé Composé?

The passé composé is a French tense used for the past. The passé composé corresponds mostly to the English simple past or the present perfect.
The passé composé talks about specific actions that were completed in the past.
In spoken French language, the passé composé is always used instead of the passé simple.
We conjugate the passé composé using the auxiliary verbs avoir or être followed by the past participle (le participe passé) of the verb.

J’ai parlé, nous avons étudié, ils ont choisi, elles sont allées…

2 – What is an Auxiliary Verb?

An auxiliary verb helps another verb to form a tense.

He has been gone for ever.
Has = auxiliary verb
Been = auxiliary verb
Gone = main verb

In English, there are three auxiliary verbs: to have, to be, to do, and some auxiliary words such as will, would, may, must, can , could.

In French, there are only two auxiliary verbs: avoir and être. And there are no auxiliary words. In French, we use verb endings to convey these meanings, or expressions.

A verb tense composed of an auxiliary verb and a main verb is called in grammar a compound tense, as opposed to a simple tense which uses only the main verb.

3 – What is a Participle?

A participle is a verb form used with an auxiliary verb to form a tense, or when a verb is used as an adjective.

1. He has closed the window.
Has = auxiliary + closed = participle

=> compound tense: “has closed”.

2. He was closing the window.
Was = auxiliary + closing = participle

=> compound tense: “was closing”

3. He didn’t hear through the closed window.
The word “closed” in this sentence is a verb (”to close’) in its participle form.

It’s used here as an adjective to describe the word ‘window’.

4 – French Passé Composé – Construction

Most verbs use “avoir”, to have to form their passé composé.

A – To have conjugation

ConjugationTranslation
J’aiI have
Tu asYou have
Il/elle/on aHe/she/it has
Nous avonsWe have
Vous avezYou have
Ils/elles ontThey have

A limited (but very commonly used) list of verbs use “Être”.

B – To be conjugation

ConjugationTranslation
Je suisI am
Tu esYou are
Il/elle/on estHe/she/it is
Nous sommesWe are
Vous êtesYou are
Ils/elles sontThey are

You will need to learn by heart the list of verbs using être for their passé composé (see below).

C – French Past participle

After you’ve conjugated avoir or être in the present tense, you then add the “main” verb in the past participle.

Regular ER verbs = éParler = parlé
Regular IR verbs = iFini = fini
Regular RE verbs = uVendre = vendu
Irregular verbs in IRE = itFaire = fait
Dire = dit
Erire – écrit
Conduire – conduit
Many irregular verbs = uVenir = venu
Tenir = tenu
Devoir = dû
Pouvoir = pu
Vouloir = voulu
Lire = lu
Boire = bu
Attendre = attendu
Entendre = entendu
Courir = couru
Répondre = répondu
Many irregular verbs in IRE = itFaire = fait
Dire = dit
Erire – écrit
Conduire – conduit
Avoireu
Êtreété

There are many irregular French past participle. The best is to learn them with an audio method and within the context of a story so you develop an ear for them (that’s how the French do it)

Master the French passé composé with my French audiobook method. All the grammatical explanations are illustrated by an ongoing story recorded at 2 different levels of enunciation (enunciated & modern). The Q & A section will entice you to practice out loud what you’ve learned and improve your confidence when speaking French.

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5 – Passé Composé Conjugations Examples

Here are some examples of passé composé conjugations.

Regular ER verbs – Parler

ConjugationUsual translation
J’ai parléI spoke
Tu as parléYou (1 person informal) spoke
Il, elle, on a parléHe/she/it spoke
Nous avons parléWe spoke
Vous avez parléYou (1 formal or plural) spoke
Ils, ellesThey spoke

Regular IR verbs – Finir

ConjugationUsual translation
J’ai finiI finished
Tu as finiYou (1 person informal) finished
Il, elle, on a finiHe/she/it finished
Nous avons finiWe finished
Vous avez finiYou (1 formal or plural) finished
Ils, elles ont finiThey finished

Have in Passé Composé – avoir

ConjugationUsual translation
J’ai euI had
Tu as euYou (1 person informal) had
Il, elle, on a euHe/she/it had
Nous avons euWe had
Vous avez euYou (1 formal or plural) had
Ils, elles ont euThey had

Be in passé composé – être

ConjugationUsual translation
J’ai étéI was
Tu as étéYou (1 person informal) were
Il, elle, on a étéHe/she/it was
Nous avons étéWe were
Vous avez étéYou (1 formal or plural) were
Ils, elles ont étéThey were

Go in passé composé – aller

ConjugationUsual translation
Je suis allé(e)I went
Tu es allé(e)You went
Il, elle, on est allé(e)(s)He/she/it went
Nous sommes allé(e)sWe went
Vous êtes allé(e)(s)You went
Ils, elles sont allé(e)sThey went

Note that passé composé doesn’t usually translate into the past progressive “I was going” but could translate into “I went” or “I have gone” or “I did go”…

To learn the French conjugations of the most common French irregular verbs, I suggest you check out my French verb drills audiobooks.

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6 – When to use Passé Composé

When you are talking about the past in French, or telling a story in the past, you’ll mostly use 2 tenses: the passé composé and l’imparfait.

The passé composé describes an action that ended in the past. It describes what took place at that very moment: a specific event or a succession of specific events, the main storyline.
(Picture a selfie)

This is really a shortcut!
There is much to say on this subject and that’s why I wrote a whole article which explains the use of passé composé vs imparfait. My article includes many practice stories with explanations of why I chose passé composé or imparfait, even videos!

7 – Agreements in Passé Composé

Students spend hours upon hours trying to understand the agreements with passé composé.

This is very important if you are passing a French test, since it’s a favorite!

However, if you are learning French to communicate in French, all these agreements are mostly going to be silent! It’s only in writing that it matters.

So, is this really worth your time?

When you’re speaking French and the verb ends in a [é] sound, you shouldn’t even think about the way it’s spelled. It’s only in writing that it matters!

Here is the general rule – but let me warn you, knowing the rule doesn’t mean you can apply it easily!

Passé composé agreement with être

With to be as your auxiliary verb, it’s rather simple. The past participle is going to have the same kind of agreements as regular French adjective.

SingularPlural
Masculineé, i, u
Marc est allé
Marc est parti
Marc est venu
Add a silent s
Marc et Anne sont allés
Marc et Anne sont parties
Marc et Anne sont venues
Féminineadd a silent e
ée, ie, ue
Anne est allée
Anne est partie
Anne est venue
add a silent es
ées, ies, ues
Anne et Julie sont allées
Anne et Julie sont parties
Anne et Julie sont venues

Actually, many past participles in French are used as adjectives:

Camille et Olivier sont mariés – mariés grammatical speaking is a past participle used as an adjective. But I digress…

Passé composé agreement with avoir

That’s what is really confusing.

If you are a French beginner, just remember that when a French verb is conjugated with avoir / to have in the passé composé, the past participle (the main verb) never agrees with the subject.
Never, ever, ever.

Anne a parlé – never ever ever ée
Ils ont fini – never ever ever is

If you know what a direct object is, then the rule may make sense to you.

Most students don’t remember what a direct object is, and the problem is that French learning method assume they do.

I can’t go deep into explaining what a direct object is here. To truly understand French grammatical concepts such as pronouns, direct objects, adjectives etc, I suggest you check out my intermediate level French audiobook method.

So now here is the passé composé with avoir agreement rule:

With avoir, the past participle (the main verb) will agree in gender and number with the direct object, only if the direct object is placed before the verb.
Il a acheté des fleurs.
Il a acheté quoi ? Des fleurs.
Des fleurs is the direct object.
Placed after the verb – no agreement
Il a acheté des fleurs.
Placed before = agreement
Les fleurs qu’il a achetées
Agreement with les fleurs (feminine plural)
Object pronoun placed before = agreement
(Les fleurs) Il les a achetées
Agreement with les (standing for les fleurs = feminine plural)
Acheté, achetée, achetée, achetées are pronounced the same way! So it’s only if you are writing French that you need to worry.
There are some cases when you’ll hear the agreement.
La chemise qu’il a mise – iZ
La poésie qu’il a apprise – iZ
La bêtise qu’il a dite – iT

Yes, it’s true. If you want to speak French perfectly, eventually you’ll need to master these subtleties. But if you ask me, for most people studying French for pleasure, this can wait. There are other priorities.

For example, memorising the verbs which are conjugated with être or avoir in passé composé. This is much more important and worth your time if you are studying French to communicate in French!

8 – How to Choose Between Avoir and Être?

Most verbs in French use “avoir” to form compound tenses such as passé-composé, plus-que-parfait, futur-antérieur etc… But some verbs use “être”.

In this lesson, I’m going to point out mnemotechnic ways to memorize them, but mostly I am offering you a deeper understanding of the logic behind this grammatical behavior.

A – Not All Verbs of Movement Use Être In Passé Composé

Many methods will tell you this: verbs that use “être” are verbs of movement.

It’s true, but I don’t think this is very helpful, since many verbs of movements do not use “être”, such as “danser (to dance), sauter (to jump), courir (to run), marcher (to walk) etc…” which use “avoir”.
J’ai dansé, j’ai sauté, j’ai couru, j’ai marché…

B – What Matters is What Follows The Verb!

What really helps to understand why the verbs constructed with “être” do so, is to know they are all intransitive verbs in French: in their original meaning they cannot be followed by a direct object.

In French, they are followed by complement of place, time, manner… and this differs usually from English.

For example, in English, you say “he exited the house“.
He exited what? = the house. The house is a direct object.

In French, “il est sorti de la maison”.
Il est sorti DE quoi ? = de la maison. La maison is a complement of place.

Now that you know this, you’ll understand why when you memorize these words, you should memorize the prepositions that come with them as well.

Most of these verbs can be followed by all prepositions of place: à, au, aux, en, sur, chez, en bas….

Remember that when you use “être”, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject:
Elles sont entrées dans la maison = they came inside the house.

C – All Reflexive Verbs Use “Etre” in Passé Composé

This is quite important as well. All the verbs used in a reflexive form (the “se” form) use être :

  1. J’ai habillé la poupée : I dressed the doll (not reflexive)
  2. Je me suis habillée : I got dressed (reflexive)

To understand how to use a verb in the reflexive form, I invite you to read my blog article about French reflexive verbs.

D – List of French verbs using “être” to form their compound tenses

The following verbs (+ verbs in the reflexive form) use être for their compound tenses: passé-composé, but also plus-que-parfait, futur antérieur etc…

So that you can remember these “être” verbs better, I’ve listed commonly used prepositions after the verbs.

Please understand these are not the only prepositions that can be used, just pointers.

Try to memorize these examples, or make examples that are “closer” to your life, so you can remember them better. Don’t forget your prepositions!

  1. Venir de : to come from
    Elle est venue du Japon – she came from Japan
  2. Arriver à, en, au… : to arrive
    Ils sont arrivés au restaurant – they arrived to the restaurant
  3. Monter sur: to climb up on
    Je suis montée sur le mur – I climbed up on the wall
  4. Entrer dans: to enter – watch out since this one doesn’t use a preposition in English
    Il est entré dans la maison – he entered the house
  5. Rester dans, à…: to stay in
    Tu es resté dans ta chambre – you stayed in your room
  6. Sortir de: to exit –  watch out since this one doesn’t use a preposition in English-
    On est sortis de l’hôtel – we exited the hotel
  7. Descendre de: to go down (downstairs) from, to climb down…
    Nous sommes descendus de l’arbre – we climbed down from the tree
  8. Tomber de, sur… – to fall from, on…
    Vous êtes tombées de cheval – you fell from your horse
  9. Partir à, en… – to leave for…
    Il est parti en France – he left for France
  10. Aller à, au, en, chez… – to go to, in…
    Tu es allée à Paris – you went to Paris
  11. Passer par – to go through a place
    Nous sommes passés par Paris – we went through Paris
  12. Retourner à, au, en, Rentrer chez – to back (again) to / (more on retourner ≠ rentrer)
    Il est retourné à la boulangerie – he went back again to the bakery
  13. Naître à, au, en – To be born in
    Je suis née à Paris – I was born in Paris
  14. Mourir à, au, en… – To die in
    Elle est morte chez elle – she died in her home

+ all the verbs built on these verbs also use être: rentrer, devenir, revenir, repartir…

E – How to Memorize which French Verbs Use “Être”?

Être and avoir: the hiker

A way to help memorizing these verbs is to imagine a hiker coming to a mountain with a house on top:

  1. Being born in the village (elle est née dans le village)
  2. then coming here (elle est venue ici) ,
  3. passing pretty flowers (elle est passée à côté de ces jolies fleurs),
  4. reaching the bottom of the mountain (elle est arrivée en bas de la montagne),
  5. climbing on top of the mountain (elle est montée en haut de la montagne),
  6. then going towards the house (elle est allée vers la maison),
  7. entering the house (elle est entrée dans la maison),
  8. staying in the house a bit (elle est restée un peu dans la maison),
  9. then exiting the house (et puis elle est sortie de la maison),
  10. going down the mountain (elle est descendue de la montagne),
  11. falling (elle est tombée)…
  12. but thankfully without dying (mais heureusement, elle n’est pas morte),
  13. leaving the mountain (elle est partie de la montagne),
  14. returning to her village (elle est rentrée dans son village)…

Let’s illustrate this hiker image with a video.

My daughter Leyla did a short and fun video using the popular video game Minecraft.

DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP

Another way to memorize which verbs take être or avoir is DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP:
Devenir
Revenir
&
Monter
Rester
Sortir

Venir
Aller
Naître
Descendre
Entrer
Rentrer
Tomber
Retourner
Arriver
Mourir
Partir et Passer par

Now, don’t forget that all reflexive verbs also use “être”.
Je me suis lavée – (se laver) I washed myself.

I believe the mnemotechnic methods listed above to be useful for an exam, but not when you speak.

To make the right choice when speaking, you need to develop habits, reflexes, and the best way is to get accustomed to hearing these verb forms used properly: use my French audio books to study “être” and “avoir” verbs in the context of a story, develop an ear for it!

More about être and avoir

Now let’s go a bit deeper into grammar. I like to tell my students that “être” is the verb of the subject, and “avoir” the verb of the direct object. “Être” is “allergic” to direct object: see what happens now…

Many of the verbs above can be used in an “idiomatic” way, with a meaning which is twisted from their original meaning.

To say to take something down, in, out, up… we also use these verbs:

  • Descendre la poubelle: to take the garbage downstairs
  • Monter la valise: to take the suitcase upstairs
  • Sortir les chiens: to take the dogs out
  • Rentrer la voiture: to put the car inside the garage

Also

  • Passer + time = to spend + time

So now, you are going to have a direct object: la poubelle, la valise… Can you guess which verb you’ll use to make passé composé? “Avoir”, that’s right!

When Être Verbs Use Avoir

  • J’ai descendu le sac: I took the bag downstairs
  • J’ai monté l’escalier: I went up the stairs
  • J’ai sorti la voiture: I took the car outside
  • J’ai rentré les jouets: I took the toys inside
  • J’ai passé le weekend à Paris: I spent the weekend in Paris

Note: there are many idiomatic meanings of these verbs + direct object:

  • Descendre quelqu’un: to diss someone, also to kill someone
  • Monter + something: to build something up,
  • Recently a popular song said “tomber la chemise” to say to remove one’s shirt…

Reflexive Verbs + Direct Object

Some reflexive verbs can be used by a direct object, in particular part of the body.

In this case, you will still use “être”, but there will be no agreement: not with the subject, not with the direct object…

  • Camille s’est lavé les mains – Camille washed her hands.

Note also that we say “she washed (herself) THE hands”, not as in English “she washed HER hands”, we use a definite article, not a possessive adjective.

9 – Passé Composé Story

Here is a short video I made to illustrate Passé Composé using the popular videogame “The Sims 4”.

In this video, we’ll concentrate on what took place in Philippe’s life, the series of actions he did that evening.

And here is the French transcript:

Voici Philippe. Ce soir, Philippe est rentré tôt du travail et il a mangé un burger. Et puis il s’est levé, il s’est mis en maillot de bain, et il est sorti de chez lui.

Il a traversé son jardin, il s’est approché de sa piscine et il a descendu l’échelle pour entrer dans l’eau.

Il a nagé un petit peu sur place, et puis, il a commencé à faire des longueurs.

Philippe s’est approché du bord de la piscine, et puis il est sorti de l’eau.

Il a couru pour rentrer dans la maison

Il a décidé d’aller prendre un bain pour se rincer, et se réchauffer.

Il est entré dans son bain et s’est lavé.

Il est sorti de la baignoire, puis il a voulu jouer de la guitare.

Après un moment, il a posé sa guitare, il a pris son assiette et l’a mise dans le lave-vaisselle ; il a ouvert le frigidaire, pris les ingrédients pour se faire un croque monsieur, et il a commencé à cuisiner.

Il a retourné le croque-monsieur.

Il a sorti son téléphone et a envoyé un texto à son ami Pierre.

Il a salé son croque-monsieur, l’a retourné une fois de plus, et puis il l’a mis sur une assiette, et il est allé s’asseoir pour dîner.

Next, I suggest you read my article about the differences between passé-composé and imparfait, and discover the same video now featuring Philippe’s thoughts, and what was taking place all around him (= imparfait).

You may also be interested in my article about the subjunctive.

The best way to truly understand French grammar is to learn French in context: check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different levels of enunciation (enunciated and modern).

You’ll find exclusive mini lessons, tips, pictures and more daily on French Today’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!

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