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”:
Être, to be:
J’ai été, I was – I have been
Nous avons été, We were – We have been
Avoir, to have:
J’ai eu, I had – I have had
Nous avons eu, We had – We have had
Faire, to do:
J’ai fait, I did – I have done
Nous avons fait, We did – We have done
Dire, to say:
J’ai dit, I said – I have said
Nous avons dit, We said – We have said
Pouvoir, to be able to (can):
J’ai pu, I was able to – I have been able to
Nous avons pu, We were able to – We have been able to
Voir, to see:
J’ai vu, I saw – I have seen
Nous avons vu, We saw – We have seen
Savoir, to know:
J’ai su, I knew – I have known
Nous avons su, We knew – We have known
Vouloir, to want:
J’ai voulu, I wanted – I have wanted
Nous avons voulu, We wanted – We have wanted
Devoir, to have to (must):
J’ai dû, I had to – I have had to
Nous avons dû, We had to – We have had to
Croire, to believe/think:
J’ai cru, I believed/thought – I have believed/thought
Nous avons cru, We believed/thought – We have believed/thought
Prendre, to take:
J’ai pris, I took – I have taken
Nous avons pris, We took – We have taken
Mettre, to put:
J’ai mis, I put – I have put
Nous avons mis, We put – We have put
Tenir, to hold:
J’ai tenu, I held – I have held
Nous avons tenu, We held – We have held
Entendre, to hear:
J’ai entendu, I heard – I have heard
Nous avons entendu, We heard – We have heard
Répondre, to answer/reply:
J’ai répondu, I answered/replied – I have answered/replied
Nous avons répondu, We answered/replied – We have answered/replied
Rendre, to make/drive (sbdy crazy, happy…), to give back/render:
J’ai rendu, I made – I have made
Nous avons rendu, We made – We have made
Connaître, to know:
J’ai connu, I knew – I have known
Nous avons connu, We knew – We have known
Sentir, to feel/smell:
J’ai senti, I felt – I have felt
Nous avons senti, We felt – We have felt
Attendre, to wait:
J’ai attendu, I waited – I have waited
Nous avons attendu, We waited – We have waited
Vivre, to live:
J’ai vécu, I lived – I have lived
Nous avons vécu, We lived – We have lived
Comprendre, to understand:
J’ai compris, I understood – I have understood
Nous avons compris, We understood – We have understood
Écrire, to write:
J’ai écrit, I wrote – I have written
Nous avons écrit, We wrote – We have written
Lire, to read:
J’ai lu, I read – I have read
Nous avons lu, We read – We have read
Suivre, to follow:
J’ai suivi, I followed – I have followed
Nous avons suivi, We followed – We have followed
These ones use the auxiliary “être”:
Aller, to go:
Je suis allé(e), I went – I have gone
Nous sommes allé(e)s, We went – We have gone
Venir, to come:
Je suis venu(e), I came – I have come
Nous sommes venu(e)s, We came – We have come
Devenir, to become:
Je suis devenu(e), I became – I have become
Nous sommes devenu(e)s, We became – We have become
Naître, to be born:
Je suis né(e), I was born
Nous sommes né(e)s, We were born
Partir, to leave:
Je suis parti(e), I left – I have left
Nous sommes venu(e)s, We left – We have left
Mourir, to die:
Je suis mort(e), I died – I have died
Nous sommes mort(e)s, We died – We have died