5 French Past Tense Struggles and How to Overcome Them
You aren’t still living in the present over there, are you?
And snap out of it if you’re just daydreaming about the future.
We’re gonna travel back in time.
Come with me, you dedicated French learners, and we’ll remonter le temps (go back in time) and discover the basics—as well as the finer points of one of the most important tenses in French: passé composé (the perfect tense).
When the Perfect Tense Is Used in French
The perfect tense is the most common way to talk about the past in French. You can use it to talk about past events, things that occurred multiple times in the past, or a series of actions that happened way back when.
Here are some French examples and their English equivalents to help get a better idea:
J’ai oublié comment faire passé composé. Heureusement, j’ai trouvé un magicien pour m’aider. J’ai réappris passé composé et j’ai remonté le temps!
(I forgot how to form the perfect tense. Fortunately, I found a magician to help me. I relearned the past tense and traveled back in time!)
So in a nutshell, passé composé is the equivalent of the simple past tense in English.
How to Form the French Perfect Tense
Calling all beginners and diligent reviewers! The perfect tense is a compound tense—meaning, yup, you guessed it: It has more than one part.
When forming the perfect tense in French, you use a helping verb: avoir (to have) or être (to be). The perfect tense is one of the reasons the conjugations of these two very helpful verbs have been drilled into your head.
For now we’ll stick with avoir since it’s used more commonly, but don’t worry—we’ll dive into the être struggle later.
PART A: Conjugate your helping verb. In this case, avoir. Here are the conjugations in case you need a refresher.
J‘ai (I have)
Tu as (You have)
Il/Elle a (He/she has)
Nous avons (We have)
Vous avez (You have)
Ils/Elles ont (They have)
PART B: Add the past participle. To figure out what the past participle is, follow these (regular) rules. We’ll get to irregular verbs later.
- For -er verbs like nager (to swim), manger (to eat), jouer (to play), etc. drop the -er and replace with -é to make the past participle: nagé, mangé, joué.
- For -ir verbs like finir (to finish), réfléchir (to think), choisir (to choose), etc. drop the -ir and replace with –i to make the past participle: fini, réfléchi, choisi.
- For –re verbs like perdre (to lose), attendre (to wait), répondre (to respond), etc. drop the –re and replace with -u to make the past participle: perdu, attendu, répondu.
So our perfect tense equation is:
Part A (helping verb) + Part B (past participle) = C (the perfect tense)
If you do your math right, it should look like this:
J’ai mangé (I ate).
Tu as nagé (You swam).
Il a fini (He finished).
Elle a réfléchi (She thought).
Nous avons perdu (We lost).
Vous avez attendu (You waited).
Ils ont répondu (They responded).
Elles ont joué (They played).
Now that we’ve reviewed our basics, let’s take a look at five common struggles with the perfect tense, plus how to overcome them.
5 Common Perfect Tense (Passé Composé) Struggles and How to Overcome Them
1. Irregular Past Participles
So you’re following along nicely, using your perfect tense knowledge out there in la vraie vie française (The real French life). You’re dancing in the past tense (J’ai dansé), swimming in the past tense (J’ai nagé), you’re even eating lunch and watching TV in the past tense (J’ai déjeuné et j’ai regardé la télévision).
I hate to break the bad news to you, but you’re still in regular land. Time to introduce you to the dark side of the perfect tense… the not-so-perfect irregular past participles.
If you’ve tried using the regular formation of past participles for verbs like faire (to do), avoir (to have), être (to be), or boire (to drink), then you’ve probably ended up with some bizarre contenders: avoi, etu, boiu. Those aren’t words, and that’s because there are a handful or two of irregular past participles out there.
Here are some common verbs and their past participles, most of which use avoir as their helping verb. I’ve organized them by similar ending sounds for your memorizing pleasure (flashcards recommended).
The Tiny “u” Club:
Lire (to read) – lu
Voir (to see) – vu
Boire (to drink) – bu
Croire (to believe) – cru
Pouvoir (to be able to) – pu
Savoir (to know) – su
Devoir (to have to) – dû
Pleuvoir (to rain) – plu
Avoir (to have) – eu
The Double Syllable “u” Brigade:
Vouloir (to want) – voulu
Courir (to run) – couru
Connaître (to know) – connu
Recevoir (to receive) – reçu
Venir (to come) – venu
Vivre (to live) – vécu
It “-is” What It Is:
Prendre (to take) – pris
Apprendre (to learn) – appris
Comprendre (to understand) – compris
Mettre (to put) – mis
Now You’ve Got “-it”:
Dire (to say) – dit
Écrire (to write) – écrit
Conduire (to drive) – conduit
The Cov”-ert” Mission:
Couvrir (to cover) – couvert
Ouvrir (to open) – ouvert
Découvrir (to discover) – découvert
Offrir (to offer) – offert
Souffrir (to suffer) – souffert
The Odd Ones Out:
Faire (to do/make) – fait
Être (to be) – été
Tip Time: Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, if you forget whether or not a verb is irregular, you can try the corresponding regular endings, –é, -i, or –u, and if it looks funny or is hard to pronounce with too many vowels in a row, then the participle should be irregular.
The nice thing about French is that even though verbs get changed around a lot, it’s usually so they roll off the tongue easily.
2. Remembering When to Use Être
Remember that one time I mentioned that there are two helping verbs: avoir and être? Well here’s the second half of that thought. Although you will primarily use avoir when forming the perfect tense, there are some common verbs that use être.
Here’s a list of the most common être verbs, their past participles and their definitions. Just remember the fun little mnemonic: DR. & MRS. VANDERTRAMP.
Devenir (to become) – devenu*
Revenir (to return) – revenu*
Monter (to go up, ascend) – monté
Rester (to stay) – resté
Sortir (to come out) – sorti
Venir (to come) – venu*
Aller (to go) – allé
Naître (to be born) – né*
Descendre (to go down, descend) – descendu
Entrer (to enter) – entré
Rentrer (to return) – rentré
Tomber (to fall) – tombé
Retourner (to go back) – retourné
Arriver (to arrive) – arrivé
Mourir (to die) – mort*
Partir (to leave) – parti*
You may have noticed that with the exception of naître and mourir, all of these verbs are movement verbs: going, coming, arriving, leaving, etc. Keep this in mind when you’re rattling your brain to remember which helping verb you need. Rejoice, because with a few exceptions, these être verbs are regular. Those with asterisks are the irregular ones you’ll need to remember.
But before you go jumping for joy, verbs that take être involve one more step. After conjugating with your helping verb: Je suis, Tu es, Il est, Nous sommes, Vous êtes, Ils/Elles sont…
…you add your past participle in the mix, just like before: Je suis parti, tu es sorti, il est allé, etc.
But to complete the big picture, this time you agree the past participle with your subject. I bet you were just thinking you had all the ins and outs of gender agreements in French figured out. Sorry, it’s impossible to escape them really.
Here’s how it should look if you’re in agreement: Elle est allée. Nous sommes venus. Elles sont restées.
Luckily, the endings are pretty straight forward: –e at the end of the past past participle for feminine singular, no ending for masculine singular, –s at the end of masculine plural, and –es at the end of feminine plural.
3. The Kicker: When Être Verbs Use Avoir
Raise your hand if you’ve got the être verbs down. Good, good, you’re ready for some of the trickier tricks that French has to offer: the underbelly of French grammar.
Remember all those verbs we just talked about that take être as their helping verbs? Yeah, well some of those sometimes take avoir. But have no fear, this struggle is easily explained. And when used correctly, you’ll sound like a pro.
Descendre, monter, passer, rentrer, retourner and sortir aren’t always formed in the perfect tense with être. With these guys, it depends on the context.
I mentioned that the DR. & MRS. VANDERTRAMP verbs all (with the exception of being born and dying) are motion verbs. Well, in French, descendre, monter, passer, rentrer, retourner and sortir can have meanings that aren’t synonymous with moving and shaking about.
Quit dragging your feet and we’ll debunk this.
When you throw a direct object into the mix, these verbs change meaning. A direct object, in case you need a refresher, is the thing the verb is happening to. We’ll break this down by each verb.
Using descendre as an example:
With Être: Je suis descendue du train. (I got off the train.)
I added an “e” because that’s the ladylike thing to do.
The Direct Object Conundrum: Elle a descendu ses chaussures. (She took down her shoes).
That is with avoir because what is the verb happening to? The shoes! The direct object! Huzzah, I think we’ve got it.
Therefore, according to the mythical rules of French, the verb takes avoir and does not agree with the subject (except sometimes, see struggle #4).
Here are the other verbs that work the same way:
With Être: Ils sont passés par la cirque. (They passed by the circus).
Amazing Avoir: Elles ont passé un an en prison. (They spent a year in prison).
With Être: Je suis montée dans ma chambre. (I went up to my room).
Amazing Avoir: Tu as monté tes choses. (You took up your things).
With Être: Elle est rentrée tard. (She came in late).
Amazing Avoir: Ils ont rentré une grenouille. (They brought in a frog).
With Être: Ils sont retournés au supermarché. (They returned to the supermarket).
Amazing Avoir: J’ai retourné le lit. (I turned over the bed).
With Être: Il est sorti. (He went out)
Amazing Avoir: Il a sorti le chien. (He put the dog out).
It’s really not so bad once you get into the groove of the perfect tense. Trust me, you’ll use these rules.
Tip alert: Much like the fun little acronym, DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP to remember the être verbs, to remember these multiple personality verbs, use DR & MRS P to remember them. (That’s the best I could come up with without any vowels.)
4. When Avoir Agrees
So just when you’re thinking to yourself… “So if être is the helping verb, then the participle agrees, but if it’s avoir, it doesn’t. By George I’ve got it!”… I’m here to burst your bubble. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, avoir will agree with a direct object. Nothing to lose your hat over, I promise. Just more rules to add to your big old book of “French Rules.”
We talked a little bit about direct objects in struggle three, but the real bugaboo is when you’ve got a direct object pronoun. A direct object pronoun replaces the well, direct object, and goes before the verb. Like this:
“J’ai vu le film.” becomes “Je l‘ai vu.” (I saw the film. I saw it.)
Le, la or les will replace the object you are talking about according to quantity and gender, and go before the helping verb.
But to be truly proper, the past participle must agree with the direct object pronoun. In the example above, the direct object pronoun is masculine singular (the film is masculine singular), so it doesn’t change the ending of the past participle.
But let’s say the sentence was: Elle a donné les bonbons (She gave the candy). This becomes: Elle les a donnés (She gave them).
It agrees! Can we all agree that it agrees? If so, we’re golden.
5. Reflexive Verbs
Here are the much dreaded, weirdly redundant reflexive verbs. Bet you were wondering where they fit into the struggles. Surely they exist in the past as well? Well lucky for you, they’re pretty easy to form, but they have a weird exception involving body parts.
Forming Reflexive Verbs in the Perfect Tense:
Reflexive verbs always take être, and they agree with their subject, just like the DR. & MRS. VANDERTRAMP verbs. Let’s take a gander at some examples:
- Je me suis lavée. (I washed myself).
- Tu t’es amusé. (You had fun).
- Il s’est habillé. (He got dressed).
- Elle s’est levée. (She woke up).
- Nous nous sommes fâchés. (We got angry).
- Vous vous êtes rasés. (You have shaved).
- Ils se sont soûlés. (They got drunk).
- Elles se sont maquillées. (They put makeup on).
Essentially, it’s just like the DR. & MRS. VANDERTRAMP verbs, but with your little reflexive pronoun tagging along before the helping verb. (Remember that the reflexive pronoun always matches the subject.)
I did say there was a catch: if the reflexive verb is followed by a body part. Yup, you heard me, a body part. In that case, the past participle does not agree. For example:
Je me suis lavé les bras. (I washed my arms)
Elle s’est cassé les jambes. (She broke her legs)
In those two examples, the past participles don’t agree. Best to just remember this as the weird body part rule. Jot this one down in your big book of “French Rules.”
If you can get these five struggles on lock, then you can survive the perfect tense. Remember your irregulars, your Doctors, Mrs. and all the agreement rules, and you’ll have the finesse of a native speaker.
The perfect tense can often be a struggle, but it’s an important one to master. Once you have it down, you can breeze through the other compound tenses.
But hey, don’t stop here. There are other ways to speak in the past tense in French, and don’t forget the future. You’ll need them to become a mad time traveling scientist.