A Speedy Journey Through 3 French Past Participle Uses

Carpe diem.

Seize the day!

True, one should absolutely live in the present, but things can’t always be so perfect.

In fact, sometimes they’re rather imperfect.

See what I did there? Ba dum tssshhh.

Really, though, the imparfait (imperfect) is an incredibly useful past tense, rivaled only by the passé composé (compound past) with its past participle, which is super incredibly useful.

But knowing how to form the past participle doesn’t only help you talk about days past.

In fact, it can help you keep up with multiple areas of the language.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s get you up to speed before you fall behind.

And we’re off!


What Is the French Past Participle?

The past participle is a verb form that appears in both English and French. In English, the past participle typically ends in “-ed,” as in “walked” or “opened.” In French, the typical past participle endings are -é, -i and -u.

In English and French alike, the past participle can denote a past or completed action (e.g., “Jean opened the door”), but that’s not all. It can also be used to form compound tenses (“Jean had opened the door”) in the passive voice (“The door was opened by Jean”) and sometimes as an adjective (“The opened door allows cold air to enter the room”).

Forming the Past Participle

First things first! How is the past participle formed? Well, it depends on what kind of verb we’re dealing with: -er, -ir or -re.

-er verbs

For regular -er verbs, the past participle is formed by adding an to the verb stem, which is to say the verb sans (without) its -er ending.

Say we have the verb manger (to eat). Its stem is mang-, which means its past participle is mangé (ate).

-ir verbs

For regular -ir verbs, the past participle is formed by adding an -i to the verb stem, which is to say the verb without its -ir ending.

In the case of the verb finir (to finish), for example, the stem is fin- and the past participle is therefore fini (finished). 

-re verbs

For regular -re verbs, the past participle is formed by adding a -u to the verb stem, which is to say the verb without its -re ending.

For the verb rendre (to return), the stem is rend- and the past participle is rendu (returned).

Pretty simple, right? But before we take a look at the past participle in action, we have to take a look at the irregular cases. I mean, what would a French grammar lesson be without some exceptions to the rule?

Irregular past participles ending in -u

avoir (to have): eu (had)

courir (to run): couru (ran)

décevoir (to disappoint): déçu (disappointed)

pouvoir (to be able to): pu (was able to)

recevoir (to receive): reçu (received)

voir (to see): vu (saw)

vouloir (to want): voulu (wanted)

boire (to drink): bu (drank)

connaître (to know): connu (knew)

croire (to believe): cru (believed)

lire (to read): lu (read)

vivre (to live): vécu (lived)

Irregular past participles ending in -ert

couvrir (to cover): couvert (covered)

découvrir (to discover): découvert (discovered)

ouvrir (to open): ouvert (opening)

souffrir (to suffer): souffert (suffered)

Irregular past participles ending in -is

acquérir (to acquire): acquis (acquired)

apprendre (to learn): appris (learned)

comprendre (to understand): compris (understood)

mettre (to put): mis (put)

prendre (to take): pris (took)

Other irregular past participles

devoir (to have to): (had to)

atteindre (to reach): atteint (reached)

dire (to say): dit (said)

être (to be): été (was)

faire (to do, to make): fait (did)

3 Timely Uses for the French Past Participle

Now that we’ve got the conjugation covered, let’s take a look at the past participle in action. As I mentioned earlier, the past participle is a multipurpose verb form. Let’s go through all its purposes.

1. Forming compound tenses

In French, tenses and moods are either simple or compound. Simple tenses are comprised of only one conjugated verb, whereas a compound tense is comprised of an auxiliary of either être (to be) or avoir (to have) along with the past participle.

The compound tenses of the indicative are the following:

  • le passé composé (compound past)—the most used past tense
  • le plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)
  • le futur antérieur (anterior future)
  • le passé antérieur (anterior past)

Passé composé (compound past)

In French, the compound past is used to refer to completed actions in the past. It’s often used in conjunction with the imparfait (imperfect), which describes actions in the past that are either incomplete or ongoing.

In the compound past, the auxiliary verb is conjugated in the present tense:

J’ai mangé un biscuit. (I ate a cookie.)

Je suis allée au cinéma. (I went to the movie theater.)

Plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)

In French, the pluperfect is used to refer to an action in the past that took place before another action in the past. The latter occurring action can either be implied or explicitly stated.

In the pluperfect, the auxiliary verb is conjugated in the imperfect.

J’avais mangé un biscuit [avant de faire à manger]. (I had eaten a cookie [before making something to eat].)

J’étais allé au cinéma [avant de manger]. (I had gone to the movie theater [before eating].)

Futur antérieur (anterior future)

In French, the anterior future is used to describe an action that will be completed by a certain point in the future.

In the anterior future, the auxiliary verb is conjugated in the futur simple (simple future).

J’aurai déjeuné à midi. (I will have had lunch at noon.)

Je ne serai pas arrivé(e) au cinéma avant le début du film. (I will not have arrived at the movie theater before the beginning of the film.)

Passé antérieur (anterior past)

In French, the anterior past is a literary version of the pluperfect.

In the anterior past, the auxiliary verb is conjugated in the passé simple (simple past).

A note: Check out this post for tips on how to overcome the difficulties that come with compound tenses, including which verbs are “helped” by avoir (to have) or être (to be) and the rules for subject-verb agreement.

2. Forming the passive voice

Voice refers to the relationship between the subjects and verbs in a sentence. In French and English alike, there are two voices: active and passive. In the active voice, the subject performs the action expressed by the verb, while in the passive voice, the action being referred to by the verb is done to the subject by an agent.

The passive voice is formed with the appropriately conjugated être (to be) + the past participle of the verb. The past participle must agree in gender and number with the noun to which it refers.

Le travail est fait par Marie. (The work is done by Marie.)

Les lettres sont écrites par Thomas. (The letters were written by Thomas.)

3. Forming adjectives

The past participle can also be used to form adjectives. The adjective can either be formed by the past participle alone or with the verb être (to be). Again, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the noun to which it refers.

Michel est un acteur connu de tout le monde. (Michel is an actor known by everyone.)

Déçue, Charlotte pleure. (Disappointed, Charlotte cries.)

How to keep up with the French past participle

Quiz yourself

Once you’re confident that the past participles have sunk into your memory, quizzes are a great way to test your knowledge.

  • Quiz yourself on the passé composé (compound past) with avoir (to have) here.
  • Quiz yourself on the past participle as adjective (with some present participle thrown in for good measure) here.
  • Quiz yourself on the active vs. passive voice here.

Listen to (or read!) the news

As I said earlier, the passé composé (compound past) is the most commonly used past tense in French. This means that a great way to hear (and see!) it in action is to listen to (or read!) the news in French, so why not stream a show off France Inter or read an article from L’Obs (short for Le Nouvel Observateur or “the new observer”).


There you have it.

Now it’s up to you to keep up!

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