French Past Tense: Everything you need to know - Talk in French
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French Past Tense: Everything You Need to Know


The Complete and Simple Guide to French Past Tense

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.

Rules on How to Form the Past Tense

 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:

  • The verbs avoir or être, and
  • The past participle

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 pluralils/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.

  • If the infinitive ends with an -er, replace the -er with -é.

◦     Examples: donner becomes donné, tomber becomes tombé

  • If the infinitive ends with an -ir, remove the r at the end

◦     Examples: finir becomes fini, partir becomes parti 

  • If the infinitive ends with a -re, replace the -re with -u.

◦     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 donnéj'ai donnéI have given.
Tu asdonné.tu as donnéYou have given
Il adonnéil a donnéHe has given.
Nous avonsdonnénou avons donnéWe have given.
Vous avezdonnévous avez donnéYou have given.
Ils ontdonnéils ont donnéThey have given.

Quick tips:

  • je is shortened to j’ when it comes before a word that starts with a vowel, most words that start with h and the French word y.
  • avoir is being used more often than être.

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. 

Pronounêtre form in Present Tense
jesuis
tues
ilest
noussommes
vousêtes
ilssont

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: 

  1. Reflexive verbs

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 formedmeaning 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)
  1. A selected group of verbs that mostly refer to or involves bodily movement or some kind of physical activity.

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)

Quick tip:

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.

  • To form the past participle when using  être, the past participle has to agree with the subject of the verb. Therefore, their endings change to accommodate the masculine and feminine, as well as the singular and plural forms.

Here are the two steps in forming the past participle for verbs that use  être.

Step 1: Change the infinitive

  • If the infinitive ends with an -er, replace the -er with -é.
  • If the infinitive ends with an -ir, remove the r at the end.
  • If the infinitive ends with a -re, replace the -re with -u.

Step 2: Add the correct endings

  • To form a masculine plural past participle, you add -s
  • To form a feminine singular past participle, you add -e
  • To form a feminine plural past participle, you add -es

Examples:

Masculine endingsExamplesFeminine EndingsExamples
Singular-tombé
parti
descendu
-etombée
partie
descendue
Plural- stombés
partis
descendus
-estombées
parties
descendues

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.

VerbWhat it meansPast participle
AvoirTo haveeu
DevoirTo have to, must
DireTo say, to telldit
ÊtreTo beété
FaireTo do, to makefait
MettreTo putmis
PouvoirTo be able to, canpu
PrendreTo takepris
SavoirTo knowsu
TenirTo holdtenu
VenirTo comevenu
VoirTo seevu
VouloirTo wantvoulu

Quick recap of the topic

  • The past tense is used when you talk about an action that took place and was completed in the past.
  • To form the past tense, you use this formula: present tense of the verb avoir or être + the past participle.
  • The past participle is obtained through using the indicative and changing the endings (-er verbs to -é, -ir verbs to -i, and -re verbs to -u)
  • Most of the verbs use avoir, but two groups (namely the reflexive verbs and some verbs that mostly refer to or involves bodily movement or some kind of physical activity) use être.
  • To form the past participle when using  être, the past participle has to agree with the subject of the verb and changes its form for feminine and plural.

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About the Author Frederic Bibard

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 +

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