Passé composé: French Compound Past Tense

The most common French past tense

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The passé composé is the most common French past tense, often used in conjunction with the imperfect. It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between the passé composé and imperfect in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately. Before you can compare them, however, be sure that you understand each tense individually, as this will make it a lot easier to figure out how they work together.

Generally speaking, the imperfect describes past situations, while the passé composé narrates specific events. The passé composé can express any of the examples below, which range from completed actions in the past to actions repeated multiple times in the past, and even a series of actions completed in the past.

An Action Completed in the Past

Some actions are started and completed in the past, as these examples show.

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

An Action Repeated a Number of Times in the Past

At other times, an action might be repeated multiple times in the past.

  • Oui, j'ai mangé cinq fois hier. > Yes, I did eat five times yesterday.
  • Nous avons visité Paris plusieurs fois. > We've visited Paris several times.

A Series of Actions Completed in the Past

You can also express a series of actions fully completed in the past with the passé composé.

  • Quand je ​suis arrivé, j'ai vu les fleurs. > When I arrived, I saw the flowers.
  • Samedi, il a vu sa mère, a parlé au médicin et a trouvé un chat. > Saturday he saw his mother, talked to the doctor, and found a cat.

Tips for Using "Passé Composé"

The passé composé has three possible English equivalents. For example, j'ai dansé can mean:

  1. I danced (simple past)
  2. I have danced (present perfect)
  3. I did dance (past emphatic)

The passé composé is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts:

  1. present tense of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être)
  2. past participle of the main verb

Like all compound conjugations, the passé composé may be subject to grammatical agreement:

  • When the auxiliary verb is être, the past participle must agree with the subject
  • When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle may have to agree with its direct object.

French "Passé Composé" Conjugations

As noted, in French, the passé composé is made up of two parts. As the tables shows, the first part is the present tense of the verb avoir or être. The second part is called the participe passé (past participle).  ​

LingQ, a language website, says students of French should try to avoid the error of mixing up verbs which take être and avoir in the past tense because "it can lead to some awkward moments in a conversation." Learning the conjugations in the table should be helpful in that regard.

AIMER (auxiliary verb is avoir)

j' ai aimé nous avons aimé
tu as aimé vous avez aimé
il,
elle
a aimé ils,
elles
ont aimé

DEVENIR (être verb)

je suis devenu(e) nous sommes devenu(e)s
tu es devenu(e) vous êtes devenu(e)(s)
il est devenu ils sont devenus
elle est devenue elles sont devenues

SE LAVER (pronominal verb)

je me suis lavé(e) nous nous sommes lavé(e)s
tu t'es lavé(e) vous vous êtes lavé(e)(s)
il s'est lavé ils se sont lavés
elle s'est lavée elles se sont lavées