This blog entry was written by the talented Morgan Sutherland – meet her on Twitter @MorganDaisies

Confused about using the past tense? Pas de problème! These are some handy hints when trying to say something like, “I have done my homework!” (For your reference, j’ai fait mes devoirs!)

The passé composé is the first tense (after present!) usually taught to us students of the French language. This is the most commonly used past tense in the French language, and is composed with the help of two verbs used in the present tense: avoir (to have) and, to a lesser extent, être (to be). These are known as auxiliary verbs when constructing the passé composé.

Avoir and être are conjugated like this:

Avoir Être
I J’ai Je suis
You Tu as Tu es
He / She Il / Elle a Il / Elle est
They (He / She) Ils / Elles ont Ils / Elles sont
You (Plural and Formal) Vous avez Vous êtes
We Nous avons Nous sommes

 

The verb that has been conjugated using the passé composé is known as the past participle. The easy way to remember how to conjugate using the passé composé is to simply replace the verb ending with the following:

 

VERBS ENDING IN -ER: Drop the -er and add -é:

parler (to speak) = parlé (spoken)
arriver (to arrive) = arrivé (arrived)
aimer (to like) = aimé (liked)

 

VERBS ENDING IN -IR: Drop the -ir and add -i:

finir (to finish) = fini (finished)
choisir (to choose) = choisi (chosen)
accomplir (to accomplish) = accompli (accomplished)

 

VERBS ENDING IN -RE: Drop the -re and add -u:

répondre (to respond) = répondu (responded)
vendre (to sell) = vendu (sold)
attendre (to wait) = attendu (waited)

 

These aren’t every verb ending, though these are the common ones. Of course, there are also exceptions to every rule, and these are a few:

Mourir (to die) = mort (Je suis mort, though this is admittedly an unlikely phrase to use!)
Voir (to see) = vu (Tu as vu – I saw)
Pouvoir (to be able to, or ‘can’) = pu (Elle a pu – I could)
Boire (to drink) = bu (Ils ont bu – They drank)
Dire (to say) = dit (Vous avez dit – You said)
Prendre (to take) = pris (Nous avons pris – We took)

 

Avoir is the most commonly used auxiliary verb (J’ai mangé le croissant, or I ate the croissant, for example). Être is used primarily for verbs involving motion (such as je suis allé, or I went). This is a handy picture to remember the few motion verbs conjugated using être:

Diagram of passé composé tense with être

The most important thing to remember is to try, and don’t worry! Your efforts will always be appreciated, and you might even impress a French speaker who isn’t expecting you to whip out the past tense.