The passé composé is known as the past tense in English. It’s a very common tense, used in everyday life by French people. Therefore, mastering the passé composé is essential to become fluent in French.
What is the passé composé? When do we use it?
It’s an action that took place in the past and which is completed. For example in English you would say: “I ate an apple yesterday”, this action happened yesterday, and it didn’t carry on over a period of time (unlike with the imperfect tense).
How to form the passé composé?
The passé composé is a compound tense, which means it has two parts after the subject pronoun.
1 – Auxiliary Verb: être, to be, or avoir, to have, in the present tense
2 – Past Participle of the main verb
First, let’s talk about the conjugation of the regular 1st group verbs.
1st group verbs (in “-er”)
Regular verbs are all the verbs ending in “-er” in their infinitive form, like manger, to eat ; penser, to think… There is only one exception: the verb aller, to go, which is in fact a highly irregular verb.
These verbs are easy to conjugate in the passé composé because they all follow the same patterns.
The past participle of a 1st group verb ends in “-é” in its basic form.
Example: donner, to give
You just have to drop the “r” at the end and you add the acute accent on the “e” : donné, super easy right?
If you are not sure what a past participle is in English, it’s when you say “I have given”. You cannot say “I have gave”, because “given” is the past participle of the verb “to give”.
Another thing, remember that the ending of the past participle will depend on the auxiliary verb you use to form the passé composé. The easiest is with the auxiliary “avoir” because the ending is the same regardless of the gender or the number of the subject, so it will always be “-é”:
J’ai donné, I gave – I have given
Tu as donné, You gave – You have given
Il/Elle a donné, He/She gave – He/She has given
Nous avons donné, We gave – We have given
Vous avez donné, You gave – You have given
Ils/Elles ont donné, They gave – They have given
However, some verbs use the auxiliary verb être, to be, to form the passé composé. In this case, you need to consider the gender and number of the subject because it modifies the ending of the past participle.
So how do I know if a verb use avoir or être in the passé composé?
Well, the verbs using être in the passé composé are most of the movement verbs and all the pronominal verbs. Let’s take an example with the verb tomber, to fall, which is a movement verb.
Je suis tombé(e), I fell – I have fallen
Tu es tombé(e), You fell – You have fallen
Il est tombé, He fell – He has fallen
Elle est tombée, She fell – She has fallen
Nous sommes tombé(e)s, We fell – We have fallen
Vous êtes tombé(e)s, You fell – You have fallen
Ils sont tombés, They fell – They have fallen
Elles sont tombées, They fell – They have fallen
I know this is very confusing because in English, you don’t say “I am fallen” (you could, but it would be a completely different sense). But don’t worry if you use the wrong auxiliary (if you say “J’ai tombé” for example), because French people will still understand what you mean.
Of course it will sound wrong to them, but they will probably correct your mistake, and at some point, after repeating the verb several time, you won’t make mistakes anymore.
2nd group verbs (“-ir”)
These verbs are the less numerous in French.
Just like the 1st group verbs, they have a regular conjugation. But you must be careful because there are verbs ending in “-ir” which are not 2nd group verbs but belong to the 3rd group.
So how do you know if a verb belongs to the 2nd group or the 3rd group?
Well if, when you conjugate the verb in the present tense, the ending of the 2nd person plural conjugation is “-issez”, it means the verb belongs to the 2nd group.
For example, with the verb choisir, to choose, we say “vous choisissez” , “you choose”
Now I know this won’t really help you if you’ve never seen the verb before, so what I recommend is that you learn by heart the most common verbs of the 2nd group because there are not so many of them.
When you have that list, you can conjugate all of them in the same way. You can already start with these 10 verbs (which are more than enough for beginners):
Choisir, to choose
Finir, to finish
Définir, to define
Réunir, to gather, to bring together
Grandir, to grow
Remplir, to fill
Réfléchir, to reflect, to think
Réussir, to succeed
Fournir, to provide
Accomplir, to accomplish, to carry out
Let’s go back to the passé composé with the verb choisir. As I said, the 2nd group verbs are regular, so no difficulties.
To form the past participle, you just have to drop the “r” and that’s it: choisi
J’ai choisi, I chose – I have chosen
Tu as choisi, You chose – You have chosen
Il/Elle a choisi, He/She chose – He/She has chosen
Nous avons choisi, We chose – We have chosen
Vous avez choisi, You chose – You have chosen
Ils/Elles ont choisi, They chose – They have chosen
By the way, there are no 2nd group verbs using the auxiliary “être” in the passé composé (unless they are pronominal verbs).
3rd group verbs (all the other ones)
Okay, here comes the big boss, or should I say the big bosses…
In fact, like the 2nd group verbs, the 3rd group verbs are not so numerous, but they are much more frequently used. To give you an idea, the top 10 most frequently used verbs in French belong to this group. But it’s the same in English you know? The only difference with French is that our conjugation is a bit more complicated, but… that’s what makes the beauty of the language, right?
Anyway, it’s extremely important for you to know these verbs in the passé composé, because as I said, the passé composé is the most frequent past tense used in French, and the 3rd group verbs are the most frequently used verbs.
So we’re not gonna go through the conjugation of every single 3rd group verbs because that would take ages. But I’m going to show you the conjugation of 30 main 3rd group verbs in the passé composé.
What you need to know is that though you have the verb in its infinitive form, when you conjugate it in the passé composé, its past participle changes drastically for some of them. So you understand that what you have to learn is in fact their past participle.
Most of them use the auxiliary “avoir”:
1) Être, to be:
Nous avons été, We were – We have been
2) Avoir, to have:
Nous avons eu, We had – We have had
3) Faire, to do:
Nous avons fait, We did – We have done
4) Dire, to say:
Nous avons dit, We said – We have said
5) Pouvoir, to be able to (can):
Nous avons pu, We were able to – We have been able to
6) Voir, to see:
Nous avons vu, We saw – We have seen
7) Savoir, to know:
Nous avons su, We knew – We have known
8) Vouloir, to want:
Nous avons voulu, We wanted – We have wanted
9) Devoir, to have to (must):
Nous avons dû, We had to – We have had to
10) Croire, to believe/think:
Nous avons cru, We believed/thought – We have believed/thought
11) Prendre, to take:
Nous avons pris, We took – We have taken
12) Mettre, to put:
Nous avons mis, We put – We have put
13) Tenir, to hold:
Nous avons tenu, We held – We have held
14) Entendre, to hear:
Nous avons entendu, We heard – We have heard
15) Répondre, to answer/reply:
Nous avons répondu, We answered/replied – We have answered/replied
16) Rendre, to make/drive (sbdy crazy, happy…), to give back/render:
Nous avons rendu, We made – We have made
17) Connaître, to know:
Nous avons connu, We knew – We have known
18) Sentir, to feel/smell:
Nous avons senti, We felt – We have felt
19) Attendre, to wait:
Nous avons attendu, We waited – We have waited
20) Vivre, to live:
Nous avons vécu, We lived – We have lived
21) Comprendre, to understand:
Nous avons compris, We understood – We have understood
22) Écrire, to write:
Nous avons écrit, We wrote – We have written
23) Lire, to read:
Nous avons lu, We read – We have read
24) Suivre, to follow:
Nous avons suivi, We followed – We have followed
These ones use the auxiliary “être”:
25) Aller, to go:
Nous sommes allé(e)s, We went – We have gone
26) Venir, to come:
Nous sommes venu(e)s, We came – We have come
27) Devenir, to become:
Nous sommes devenu(e)s, We became – We have become
28) Naître, to be born:
Nous sommes né(e)s, We were born
29) Partir, to leave:
Nous sommes venu(e)s, We left – We have left
30) Mourir, to die:
Nous sommes mort(e)s, We died – We have died