Be Agreeable! How to Learn French Verb Agreement by Mastering the Past Tense
Delving into the past can sometimes be painful.
Do you agree?
Fuddling through the correct conjugations for the French past tense—and all the right verb agreements—can make recalling past events even more painful.
Again, are you in agreement? Give me a wink, a nod or a thumbs up if I’m on to something.
Only by confronting the past (tense) can you move forward in your French studies.
So let’s bring the past to life.
In this post, we’re going to discuss grammar.
Specifically, grammar in the context of the past tense.
Even more specifically, French verb agreement in the past tense.
One of the trickiest parts of mastering the past tense is perfecting subject agreement. When do you have to apply certain agreement rules, and when can you ignore them?
It isn’t just knowing how French subjects and verbs “agree” in some respects that’s important—you must also know when they should agree. This means that making French subjects and verbs are aligned becomes much more difficult.
So let’s dive into the idea of agreement in general, just to be sure we’ve got the basics down.
What Is French Verb Agreement?
You might already know that French verb endings are determined by the subject that’s attached to that verb. Maybe you had a French teacher who repeatedly nagged you to “chercher le sujet!” (look for the subject!)
Je mange du fromage. vs. Nous mangeons du fromage. (I eat cheese. vs. We eat cheese.)
Tu réponds à la question. vs. Il répond à la question. (You answer the question. vs. He answers the question.)
Je finis mes devoirs. vs. Mes sœurs finissent leurs devoirs. (I finish my homework. vs. My sisters finish their homework.)
And, of course, those pesky irregular verbs, such as aller (to go) and avoir (to be).
Je vais à l’école le matin. vs. Vous allez à l’école le matin. (I go to school every morning. vs. You all go to school every morning.)
Tu as une jolie mère. vs. Ils ont une jolie mère. (You have a beautiful mother. vs. They have a beautiful mother.)
However, French present tense verbs are wonderful because once you memorize the regular -er, -ir and -re endings, as well as commonly-used irregular verb conjugations, you’ve basically got it made! Now you can express practically anything in the present tense.
Once you start telling a story about yesterday, though…that’s when things get difficult. You have to pay attention to more than just normal subject-verb agreement. Verbs sometimes have to agree in other ways.
How to Master French Verb Agreement in the Past Tense and Beyond
Before we get into the “when,” let’s talk about the “how.” How do we make subjects and verbs agree in the past tense?
How to Use French Verb Agreement in the Past Tense
There are two ways to conjugate the past participle, or the past tense of the main verb. In English, to make the main verb a past participle, you typically add -ed. Think of these two rules as the French version of adding -ed.
Keep in mind, not all French verbs need to agree with the subject! In fact, most don’t. You only need to use the following conjugation tactics when speaking in le passé composé (past tense), using être (to be) as the helping verb.
The following points only apply to sentences using être in le passé composé. After reading about how to conjugate these verbs, keep reading for explanations about when you use être and when you don’t.
Make sure your subjects and verbs agree in number
Compound past tenses are verbs that require two parts, the helping verb and the past participle of the main verb. For example, in the sentence, J’ai mangé (I have eaten), ai (have) is the helping verb and mangé (eaten) is the past participle of the main verb.
When using compound past tenses, things are simple if you’re only talking about one person. You just use the past tense endings you’ve already learned.
Je suis né en France (I was born in France.)
Tu es allé au supermarché (You went to the supermarket.)
However, if you’re talking about multiple people, you might have to add an -s to the end of the verb.
Ils sont nés en France. (They were born in France.)
Nous sommes allés au supermarché. (We went to the supermarket.)
Make sure your subjects and verbs agree in gender
Genders can affect your sentence, too. If you’re just talking about your good pal Marc, you can keep the past participle as is. If you’re talking about Brigitte, you need to add an extra unaccented -e to the end of the verb.
Marc est venu au cinéma avec moi. (Marc came to the movies with me.)
Brigitte est venue au cinéma avec moi. (Brigitte came to the movies with me.)
If you’re talking about Brigitte, Adèle and Leticia, don’t forget that in addition to adding that extra -e, you also have to attach an -s to make it plural!
Marc et Pierre sont retournés sur le lieu du crime. (Marc and Pierre returned to the scene of the crime.)
Brigitte, Adèle et Leticia sont retournées sur le lieu du crime. (Brigitte, Adèle and Leticia returned to the scene of the crime)
As with present tense verbs, if you’re referring to men and women as a group, you just keep the subject and past participle masculine.
Marc et Brigitte sont restés à la maison. (Marc and Brigitte stayed at home.)
If you’re a woman referring to yourself, or if you’re addressing a woman, you have to add that extra -e.
Je suis allée chez mon petit ami. (I went to my boyfriend’s house.)
Esther, est-ce que tu es née dans l’Arkansas? (Esther, were you born in Arkansas?)
Excusez-moi, Céleste et Colette, est-ce que vous êtes parties à 21h00 hier soir? (Excuse me, Céleste and Colette, did you leave at 9:00 last night?)
As we get into all these French verb agreement rules, remember, you can always double-check how to conjugate any verb in any tense. Consider buying a copy of “501 French Verbs” or even just checking out Verbix.
When to Use French Verb Agreement in the Past Tense
Okay, here’s the weirdest part:
You don’t always have to make French past participles agree with the gender and number of subjects. Only sometimes.
So how do we know when to do it?
Actually, it’s surprisingly simple. There are three main types of past tense verbs, and each has its own set of rules about verb agreement.
1. Le passé composé using avoir (to have)
What is le passé composé? It’s the French compound past tense.
The French language uses le passé composé in two main contexts:
When talking about an action that’s been completed, even if it lasted for an extended period of time.
Hier soir, j’ai mangé une pomme. (Last night, I ate an apple.)
Nous avons passé dix ans en Belgique. (We spent 10 years in Belgium.)
When talking about a change in a state of being. I’ll explain this situation a little later. It’s easier to grasp once you also understand l’imparfait (imperfect past tense).
When you express something in the past tense by using le passé composé, you need a helping verb between the subject and the past participle of the main verb. The most common option is to make avoir (to have) the helping verb.
Conjugate using avoir. To communicate in the past tense, you place the corresponding conjugation of avoir before the main verb: J’ai (I have), tu as (you have), il/elle/on a (he/she/one has), nous avons (we have), vous avez (you all have), ils/elles ont (they have, masculine and feminine).
J’ai dormi très bien hier soir. (I slept very well last night.)
Les élèves ont-ils fait leurs devoirs? (Did the students do their homework?)
Nous avons joué aux cartes pendant une heure. (We played cards for an hour.)
Usually, there’s no gender or number agreement. Whew, that’s easy! In a basic passé composé sentence using avoir, you don’t even have to worry about changing the past participle of the main verb!
Talk about Sally, your five brothers, your two neighbors, whomever, and you don’t have to mess with the genders or numbers.
Il a promené son chien. (He walked his dog.)
Mes deux voisins ont décidé de peindre leur maison. (My two neighbors decided to paint their house.)
Tu as bu le coca-cola très rapidement! (You drank the Coke very quickly!)
2. Le passé composé using etre (to be)
Certain verbs require the use of être rather than avoir when speaking in le passé composé.
As is the case with the helping verb avoir, you begin with the corresponding present tense conjugation of être: je suis (I am), tu es (you are), il/elle/on est (he/she/one is), nous sommes (we are), vous êtes (you all are), ils/elles sont (they are, masculine and feminine).
Philippe est arrivé vers 7h00. (Philippe arrived around 7:00 A.M.)
Est-ce que vous êtes restés au bureau cet après-midi? (Did you all stay at the office this afternoon?)
Elle est sortie avec ses amies samedi soir. (She went out with her friends Saturday night.)
Verbs and subjects agree in gender and number. You may have already noticed this trend in the three above examples. As I explained before, when using être in the passé composé, verbs must agree in both number and gender with the subject. If you’re reading a story in the past tense and see the conjugated form of être, you should anticipate that a verb agreement is coming up next.
Il est rentré chez lui après son cours. (He went back home after his class.)
Elles sont allées au lycée. (They went to the high school.)
If you’re still confused about when to use être instead of avoir, check out this explanation.
Caution! The exception: agreement rules and direct object pronouns
Now that you know that you don’t use verb agreement with avoir and that you do use verb agreement with être, there’s one more thing you should know.
There are occasional exceptions. Sometimes you do have to make the past participle of the main verb agree when using avoir. Here’s the main circumstance:
Apply agreement rules with a preceding direct object pronoun.
A direct object pronoun is the pronoun (me, you, us, he, she, it, them) representing the person or thing the subject is acting toward. That might sound complicated, so here are a couple examples in English to clarify:
I saw them at the movie theater. (“Them” is the direct object pronoun.)
Daniel ate it before he ate his dessert. (“It” is the direct object pronoun.)
When you’re already talking about something, then later refer to that something as “it” in the position of a direct object pronoun, you have to give special attention to the gender and number of what you’re talking about.
As-tu vu la maison? — Oui, je l‘ai vue. (Did you see the house? — Yes, I saw it.)
J’ai senti les fleurs. — Vraiment? Je ne les ai pas senties. (I smelled the flowers. — Really? I didn’t smell them.)
What is l’imparfait? It’s the imperfect past tense. Simply put, it’s the past tense form you use when you don’t use le passé composé.
There are three main instances when you use l’imparfait:
When talking about a past action that was ongoing and had no clear termination point.
Quand j’étais jeune, j’aimais faire du coloriage. (When I was young, I liked to color.)
Il pensait aller à l’université. (He was thinking about going to college.)
When talking about a repeated, habitual action in the past. In English, we often use the expression “used to” to provide this context.
Nous ne faisions jamais notre lit le dimanche matin. (We never used to make our bed on Sunday mornings.)
Je jouais au football le samedi. (I used to play soccer every Saturday.)
When setting the scene.
I mentioned earlier that I would explain more about using le passé composé to refer to a change in a state of being later on. Here’s where that kicks in.
You use l’imparfait when you’re providing background information, and then you switch to le passé composé when referring to a specific action. Sometimes there’s a sudden action that “interrupts” the ongoing action that had been taking place.
Tu étais triste quand ton mari est parti? (Were you sad when your husband left?)
Elle chantait quand l’homme a éteint la lumière. (She was singing when the man turned off the light.)
Now let’s talk about how to work with verbs in l’imparfait.
Conjugate using imparfait endings. That’s right, none of this “using avoir or être” nonsense! When referring to one of these three situations, you just add the appropriate imparfait ending to the verb stem.
- Je — ais
- Tu — ais
- Il/elle/on — ait
- Nous — ions
- Vous — iez
- Ils/elles — aient
Let’s look at these endings in action:
Vous marchiez quand il a commencé à pleuvoir. (You all were walking when it began to rain.)
Pendant le mois d’octobre, Daniel et Sophie conduisaient toujours de Montréal à Québec. (During the month of October, Daniel and Sophie used to drive from Montreal to Quebec.)
J’aimais ma femme. (I loved my wife.)
There’s no gender or number agreement. Great news, right? When using imparfait, you don’t have to worry about French verb agreement regarding numbers or genders! Bless you, imparfait, you’re so much easier than le passé composé.
There you have it. Making subjects and verbs agree in the past tense seems daunting, but if you can practice and memorize these three categories, you’re well on your way to communicating past events with greater skill and confidence!