Reading time: 6 minutes Difficulty: Beginner – Intermediate
French Past Tense could be a mind-numbing learning task. But when approached with an open mind and willingness to learn, you should be able to grasp it quite easily. It helps a lot though if you have brushed up on your English grammar. Knowing the tenses in your own language is the key to easily grasping grammar rules in other languages.
Take for example the past tense which is the center of our topic in this discussion. Are you still familiar with how it works in English? If not, here’s a little background.
When you talk about an action that took place and was fully completed in the past, you use the past tense. It is also used to express something that was true in the past. For other past events, you generally use the imperfect/imparfait tense.
The past tense in English can be identified by the word “have” that often comes near it. For example, I have answered the question. Compare it with I answered the question. Do you notice the difference?
In French, the past tense works basically the same way as in English. It is also formed by two words just like its English counterpart by using the verb avoir (in most cases) which means ‘to have’, or être which means ‘to be’ before the main verb.
While the other tenses in French (such as the imperfect, future, and conditional) use only a single verb with changes in the ending, the past tense makes use of two parts:
In forming the past tense, you use this format:
The present tense of the verb avoir or être + the past participle
So this here is the meat of the lesson: the correct form of avoir + how to form the past participle.
|Present tense of avoir||(more commonly used than être):|
|1st person singular ||j'ai||(I've or I have)|
|2nd person singular||tu as||(you've or you have)|
|3rd person singular||il/elle a||(he's/ she's)|
|1st person plural||nous avons||(we have)|
|2nd person plural||vous avez||(you have)|
|3rd person plural||ils/elles ont||(they've or they have)|
How to form the past participle:
First, you start with the infinitive of the verb, and then proceed to the following changes in the ending.
◦ Examples: donner becomes donné, tomber becomes tombé
◦ Examples: finir becomes fini, partir becomes parti
◦ Examples: attendre becomes attendu, descendre becomes descendu
Vocabulary meanings: donner – to give, tomber – to fall, finir – to finish, partir – to leave, attendre – to wait, descendre – to go down
Examples in using avoir to form the past tense
So now let’s put to use the formula above and check out these examples.
Pronoun + avoir + past participle = past tense formed meaning in English
j'ai donné j'ai donné I have given.
Tu as donné. tu as donné You have given
Il a donné il a donné He has given.
Nous avons donné nou avons donné We have given.
Vous avez donné vous avez donné You have given.
Ils ont donné ils ont donné They have given.
When to use être in forming the past tense
Before we proceed to the usage of être in the past tense, let’s first take a look at its present tense forms.
|Pronoun||être form in Present Tense|
As mentioned previously, être is not used as often as avoir in the past tense. So now the question is, when do you use it?
There are two groups of verbs that makes use of être, and these are:
When we say reflexive verbs, these are the French verbs that appear with the pronoun se or the shortened form s’ before it. These action words are used when the subject is the same person as the object. To put it simply, it means “to____ oneself”.
Take for example the verb habiller which means to get dressed.
|Pronoun + être +||past participle =||past tense formed||meaning in English|
|je me suis||habillé||je me suis habillé||(I got dressed)|
|tu t'es||habillé||tu t'es habillé||(you got dressed)|
|il s'est||habillé||il s'est habillé||(he got dressed)|
|elle s'est||habillée||elle s'est habillée||(she got dressed)|
|ils se sont||habillés||ils se sont habillés||(they got dressed)|
Some common examples:
aller (to go)
venir (to come)
arriver (to arrive)
partir (to leave/go)
descendre (to go down)
monter (to go up)
entrer (to go in/ come in)
sortir (to go out)
mourir (to die)
naître (to be born)
devenir (to become)
rester (to stay)
tomber (to fall)
retourner (to go back/ return)
rentrer (to come back/ come home)
When those listed examples are used in reference to a direct object, they will use avoir instead of être. For example, if you simply say ‘he came down’ with no direct object in the sentence, you use être (il est descendu ) . But if you say ‘he came down the stairs’ the stairs being the object, that is when you use avoir (il a descendu l’escalier).
Additional rules for using être in the past tense.
Here are the two steps in forming the past participle for verbs that use être.
Step 1: Change the infinitive
Step 2: Add the correct endings
|Masculine endings||Examples||Feminine Endings||Examples|
Examples source: Collins Easy Learning French Grammar
The irregular verbs in the past tense
Just like in any other case whether in grammar or in real life, there are always a set of rule-breakers. These irregulars appear in the past tense as well.
Here are the irregular past participle forms that you need to be familiar with.
|Verb||What it means||Past participle|
|Devoir||To have to, must||dû|
|Dire||To say, to tell||dit|
|Faire||To do, to make||fait|
|Pouvoir||To be able to, can||pu|
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Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +