How to master le passé composé when speaking French

Le passé composé is the most common tense to talk about the past in spoken French. It seems simple enough, but there are several exceptions and extra rules. How does le passé composé actually work in French?

Let’s take it slowly, together, step by step.

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1) Passé composé: when to use it?

“Passé composé” or “imparfait” ?
In our last lesson, we saw how to choose a past tense in French.

Click here to learn more: How to Know Which Past Tense to Use in French: Passé composé vs imparfait vs passé simple

To recap:

Imparfait = habits and long actions
“was + -ing” (English continuous past)
Ex: Je dormais = I was sleeping.

Passé composé = specific, short actions.
“-ed” (simple past) / “have + -ed” (present perfect)
Ex: Tu as appelé. = You called.

Or in a sentence:
Je dormais quand tu as appelé. = I was sleeping when you called.
“Sleeping” is the long action that was happening in the “background”, “called” is a specific, “sharper” action that pierced that background.

2) How to build the passé composé

Just like the present perfect in English, the passé composé (= literally “compound past”) is made of:

  • Auxiliary in the present + past participle of the verb

For instance:
J’ai appelé (= I called)auxiliary = “ai” + past participle = “appelé

The auxiliaire can be the verbs avoir (= to have) or être (= to be). Here’s a reminder of their conjugation, if you need it:

Click here to get more essential reminders: 7 Common French Verbs You Need To Know

The participe passé can have many forms, as we’ll see later in this lesson. However, for all verbs ending in -er in the infinitive (first group verbs + “aller”), the participe passé keeps the root of the verb and ends in -é.

participe passé

For all these verbs, and most other verbs, the passé composé uses the auxiliary “avoir.

Your Turn Now: Using this, what’s the participe passé for “Parler” (= to speak) ? How would you say in French: “He spoke.” ?

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Ready for the answer?

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Yes! It’s parlé (= “spoken”) and Il a parlé (= He spoke / He talked.)

Now, some verbs do use the auxiliary “être.”

For instance:

  • Partir (= to leave) → Il est parti. (= He left)
  • Aller (= to go) → Il est allé. (= He went)
  • Venir (= to come) → Ils sont venus. (= They came)
  • Entrer (= to enter) → Tu es entrée. (= You entered.)
  • Tomber (= to fall) → Je suis tombée. (= I fell.)
  • Arriver (= to arrive) → Elle est arrivée. (= She arrived)
  • Naître (= to be born) → Il est né ! (= He’s born !)

Did you notice something about the endings of some of these past participles?… Keep it in mind, we’ll talk about those “s” and “ée” later in the lesson.

— Le truc en + —
All pronominal verbs (“se + infinitif”) also use “être” : like se lever” (= to get up), se marrer” (= to laugh, slang French), se casser” (= to leave, slang French).
Je me suis levée. = I got up.
Il s’est marré. = He laughed.
Tu t’es cassé ? = Did you leave?

Click here to learn more about slang pronominal verbs, and slang vocabulary in general: French “Slang” Words for All Ages

3) Past participles in passé composé

Other than the verbs in -er, past participles in French are really irregular, unfortunately.

Today, let’s see a few of them (in the masculine singular) :

Just like in English, those past participles are also used as adjectives. For instance:

  • C’est fait. = It’s done.
  • Je veux un rapport écrit. = I want a written report.

You’ll have to learn the other past participles one by one. It will come with practice and listening to French.

However, when verbs are built from one another (with a prefix), they often share the same conjugation, including past participle.

For instance, Comprendre (= to understand) is based on prendre (= to take).

Your turn now: How would you say in French “I understood” ?

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Ready for the answer ? Try to find it out yourself.

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..

Yes! It’s “J’ai compris !

— Le truc en + —

A handful of verbs can use both avoir and être in passé composé. Each version has its own meaning. Click here to learn more: French Conjugation: 6 Verbs That Use Both “Avoir” And “Être”

4) Passé composé with negative sentences

In French, Je n’ai pas compris means “I don’t understand.”

Clique here to learn more: How to Let People Know You Don’t Understand in French

It’s a useful sentence for you to learn, for everyday life in France. And it’s a good template for the negative sentence with passé composé:

Subject + (ne / n’) + auxiliary + pas + past participle
Je – n’ – ai – pas – compris

Or in everyday spoken French: J’ai pas compris.

Click here to learn more : Spoken French Rules – Drop the “ne”

Your turn now: How would you say in French “I didn’t read.” ?

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..

Yes, it’s Je n’ai pas lu. (or J’ai pas lu) !
Fantastic!

5) Passé composé: Past participle with “être” in the feminine or plural

Earlier, when talking about passé composé with “être,” I used the example:
Venir (= to come) → Ils sont venus. (= They came)

As you can see, we don’t use “venu” (masculine singular), but venus (masculine plural.) That’s because of our first additional rule:

With être, the past participle agrees with the subject (+ e, +s)

→ With a feminine subject (“Elle”…), the past participle gets an added “e
→ With a plural subject (“Ils”…), the past participle gets an added “s
→ In the feminine plural, it becomes “-es

The “s” is always silent, the “e” is silent after a vowel.

For example:

  • Il est allé pêcher. = He went fishing.
  • Elle est allée au marché. = She went to the market.
  • Nous sommes tombés de vélo. = We fell from our bikes.
  • Elles sont tombées amoureuses. = They fell in love.

Your turn now:
How would you say: Géraldine and Christina arrived on time. ?

By the way, “on time” is “à l’heure” in French. Can you do it now?

..

Yes! It’s: Géraldine et Christina sont arrivées à l’heure.

— Le truc en + —
In French, a plural is feminine only if there are only feminine subjects in it.
So we’d write:
Nicolas et Christina sont arrivés.
Mille femmes, et aussi Michel, sont arrivés à Paris. = A thousand women, and also Michel, have arrived in Paris.

Is is weird? I don’t know, you tell me 🙂

6) Passé composé: Past participle with “avoir” in the feminine or plural?

With what we’ve seen before, you can already use le passé composé in spoken French. Practice, practice, and you’ll make fewer mistakes and you’ll slowly learn all the past participles. You’ll be understood anyway, and that’s great.
However.

One rule in French is the stereotypical “complex” French grammar for all schoolchildren (and adult French people!)

→ Passé composé with “avoir” : the past participle agrees with the direct object when it comes before the verb.

For example: Les pommes ? Je les ai mangées. = The apples? I ate them.

So, what’s a direct object?
It’s a complement that comes directly after the verb, without a preposition like “de” (“of”), “à” (“at / of”), “pour” (“for / to”)...

For example: Je mange les pommes. = I eat the apples.
“Les pommes” is a direct complement of “mange.” It’s in the plural, and feminine (“une pomme” = an apple.)

In passé composé : J’ai mangé les pommes. = I ate the apples.
“Les pommes” comes after the verb, the past participle stays in the masculine singular.

But if you transform “les pommes” into the pronoun “les” (= “them” here), then it gets put before the verb. And it’s still a direct complement, only in pronoun form!
So we get: Les pommes ? Je les ai mangées. = The apples? I ate them.

Mangées agrees with “les” = “les pommes” in the feminine plural, and gets an added “es” at the end.

Of course, for manger (and all the verbs in -er), there’s a trick: in spoken French, it always sounds the same!

So don’t get too worked up about this rule.
However, to write French correctly, or with most other verbs, you do have to take a second to go through the whole process.

For instance:

  • Je l’ai pris. = I took it. (for a masculine “it”) → sounds like “pree”
  • Je l’ai prise. = I took it (for a feminine “it”) → sounds like “preez”

Don’t worry, all French people struggle with this rule now and then!

Your turn now : How would you say in French : I understood her. ?

Here, “her” is “la” before a verb, and becomes “l’” before a vowel.

Yes!
It’s Je l’ai comprise.Compris in the feminine is “comprise.

That’s really the most well-known difficulty of le passé composé. If you master it, you’ll sound like you really know French – even if you forget some vocabulary now and then.

7) How to make the passé composé agree with “on” ?

Now you’re up to speed with the rules of passé composé.
Here is a new riddle.
“We went to see the Eiffel tower.” In French, which one would you write?

  • On est allé voir la tour Eiffel.
  • On est allés voir la tour Eiffel.

A student of mine asked me that fascinating question.

Because the third-person singular pronoun “On” is ambiguous in French.

It can mean “someone”, someone we don’t know (or care about in the sentence), a general “people.
Aux États-Unis, on apprend parfois le français à l’école.
= In the US, people sometimes learn French in school.

Or, in informal French, “on” is the much more common way to say Nous” (= we).
“Avec mes amis, on a vu la tour Eiffel.”
= With my friends, we saw the Eiffel tower.

Both meanings use the conjugation of Il / Elle (third person singular).

— Le truc en + —
One problem is that the direct pronoun for “on” is… “nous” (= us).
For instance : Nous, on aime le fromage. = We love cheese. (“and other people don’t”). Here we use la répétition, it’s very common in everyday spoken French. Click here to learn more: French Grammar: Repetitions in Spoken French

In the informal meaning, when doing agreements, “on” is just like “nous”:

  • On est belles ! = We’re pretty ! if you’re a group of only women.
  • On est beaux ! = We’re handsome! If you’re a group with at least one man.
  • On est belles et beaux ! = We’re pretty and handsome! If you’re a mixed group and want to make everyone feel included.

Or, indeed in le passé composé :

  • On est allés voir la tour Eiffel ! in the masculine
  • On est allées voir la tour Eiffel. For a group of women.

So that’s where a past participle with “on” becomes plural.

However, with “on” for “some people / someone we don’t know”, the past participle stays in the masculine singular :
Au Mexique, on est allé très loin dans les décorations de Noël.
= In Mexico, people went very far into Christmas decorations.

I know, that’s subtle! And you’ll find many mistakes, in newspapers for instance.

Your turn now : How would you write in French : “We left on time.” (with “on”, and as a group of three women) ?

Remember Partir (= to leave) → Parti ?
..

Yes, it’s On est parties à l’heure !
Amazing!

8) Quiz and recap

And now, it’s time for one last fun time together. Can you spot the mistakes with the verbs in these sentences ? (Not all are incorrect.)

Don’t cheat!

Take your time. The answers are below, but you have everything you need to spot the errors.

Ready for the correction?

Here are the correct versions:

Congratulations! You reached this far. What a ride we just had together!

There’s a lot of information in this lesson. You’ll understand it a lot more after reading (or watching) it twice or three times!

You can also check out other lessons on the topic, to give you a more rounded understanding of all the pieces of French grammar.

Click on the lesson that interests you the most:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!


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Join the conversation!

  • Merci Geraldine, c’etait tres utile. (Excusez-moi, pas d’accents sur mon laptop!)
    Avez-vous fait une lecon au sujet des verbes qui peuvent se conjuguer avec etre ou avoir dans le passe compose? En particulier, ceux qui changent de sens?

  • Salut Géraldine. Merci pour tge grande leçon! Je vois que je vais devoir consacrer beaucoup plus de temps à cette langue.Salut Géraldine. Merci pour tge grande leçon! Je vois que je vais devoir consacrer beaucoup plus de temps à cette langue ! 😎 Prenez soin, Gray Walker

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