The French Recent Past: 'Passé Récent'

It is one of several ways to express the past in French

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The French recent past is a verb construction that's used to express something that just happened. It is called the passé récent. Avoid the temptation to omit the accents; without them, the phrase won't read properly.

Remembrance of Things Past

Like the futur proche, or near future, in French, the recent past tense, or passé récent, expresses the fluidity of time. There is the composed past, or passe composé, a specific action that was begun and completed in the past, such as:

  • Je suis allé en France. > I went to France.

In French, you can also use the precise imperfect, or l'imparfait, which describes repeated actions, an ongoing action, or a state of being in the past with no specified conclusion, such as:

  • J'allais en France. > I was going to France.

Then, there is the passé récent, which is something specific that just happened, or something that happened even closer to the present than the passe composé, such as:

  • Je viens de manger. > I just ate.

Understanding when and how to use the various options for the past tense is vital for those studying French.

Forming the Recent Past

Create a verb in the recent past, or passé récent, by combining the present tense of venir ("to come") with the preposition de and the action verb's infinitive, a single word that is the basic, unconjugated form of the verb. 

This makes the passé récent one of the easiest tenses to construct in the French language, and, as such, difficult to get wrong. That said, it does require the user to correctly spell the present tense of venir.

The Present Tense of "Venir"

To be able to use a verb such as venir in the recent past, it's vital to first learn how to conjugate it in the present. Since venir starts with a v, there is no elision. Note, however, that the present indicative (je viens) rhymes with bien, whereas the simple past (je vins) rhymes with "vin" (actually, it's pronounced exactly the same way).

  • Je viens > I come
  • Tu viens > You come
  • Il vient > He comes
  • Nous venons > We come
  • Vous venez > You (plural) come
  • Ils viennent > They come

 Using "Venir" in the Recent Past

To use venir in the simple past, combine the present tense of the verb with de and an infinitive, as these examples show:

  •  Je viens de voir Luc. > I just saw Luc.
  •  Il vient d'arriver. > He just arrived.
  •  Nous venons de préparer le repas. > We just prepared the meal.

Remember that knowing how to use the passé récent of verbs such as venir is quite useful, but it can apply only to things you have just done.

The "Passé Composé"

Don't confuse passé récent with passé composé, the compound past.​ The passé composé is the most common French past tense, often used in conjunction with the imperfect. It corresponds most closely in English with the simple past. Examples of the passé composé would be:

  • As-tu étudié ce weekend? > Did you study this weekend?​
  • Ils ont déjà mangé. > They have already eaten.

As noted, these are actions that were begun and completed in the past.