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.
A Quick Background on the French Past Tense
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, we generally use the imperfect/imparfait tense.
See also: The French Imperfect Tense (Imparfait)
The past tense in English can be identified by the word “have” that often appears before the verb. 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:
In forming the French past tense, use this format:
The present tense of the verb avoir or être
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 French past participle
First, you start with the infinitive of the verb, and then proceed to the following changes in the ending.
Example: donner (to give) becomes donné, tomber (to fall) becomes tombé
Example: finir (to finish) becomes fini, partir (to leave) becomes parti
Example: attendre (to wait) becomes attendu, descendre (to go down) becomes descendu
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 in French
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)|
2. A selected group of verbs that mostly refer to or involves physical action
Some common examples:
to go down
to go up
to go in/ to come up
to go out
to be born
to go back/ to return
to come back/ to 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
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
Change the infinitive
Add the correct endings
|Masculine endings||Examples||Feminine Endings||Examples|
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|