Le passé antérieur: the past anterior in French

What is the passé antérieur?

Le passé antérieur is rarely used today; we mostly find it in literary texts. It is the literary equivalent of the plus-que-parfait and is used in relation to the passé simple to indicate that an action occurred before another action in the past.

Learn all about the passé antérieur with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Lorsqu’il eut reçu son premier salaire, Louis courut acheter une guitare pour chanter une sérénade à sa bien-aimée.

When to use the passé antérieur in French

We use the passé antérieur in the same way we use the plus-que-parfait, but in relation to the passé simple rather than the passé composé. That means in the following cases:

  • to talk about a past action that occurred before another action in the past. It therefore makes the order of events clear: the action expressed in the passé antérieur took place before the action expressed in the passé simple.
    Example:
    Lorsqu’il eut reçu son premier salaire, Louis courut acheter une guitare pour chanter une sérénade à sa bien-aimée.As soon as he had received his first pay cheque, Louis rushed off to buy a guitar so that he could serenade his beloved.
  • after the following conjunctions: dès que, aussitôt que, après que, quand, lorsque, une fois que, à peine … que.

How to conjugate the passé antérieur in French

To conjugate the passé antérieur we use the passé simple form of avoir or être as an auxiliary verb, followed by the past participle (participe passé) of the main verb.

Person avoir Participle être Participle
1st person singular j’eus

aimé

fini

vendu

je fus

parti

partie

partis

parties

2nd person singular tu eus tu fus
3rd person singular il/elle/on eut il/elle/on fut
1st person plural nous eûmes nous fûmes
2nd person plural vous eûtes vous fûtes
3rd person plural ils/elles eurent ils/elles furent

In negative sentences, the past participle comes after the second part of the negation (pas).

Example:
J'eus rigolé. → Je n'eus pas rigolé. I had laughed.→ I had not laughed.
Je fus parti.→ Je ne fus pas parti. I had left.→ I had not left.

For reflexive verbs, we put the reflexive pronoun and the auxiliary verb between the two parts of the negation.

Example:
Je ne me fus pas trompé dans mon calcul.I had not made a mistake in my calculations.

Avoir or être

Most verbs construct the passé antérieur with avoir. The auxiliary verb être is used in the following cases:

    • for reflexive verbs
      Example:
      Je me fus trompé dans mon calcul.I had made a mistake in my calculations.
    • with the following verbs of motion and staying still and their derivative forms: naître/mourirto be born/to die, aller/venirto go/to come, monter/descendreto go up/to go down, arriver/partirto arrive/to leave, entrer/sortirto enter/to go out, apparaîtreto appear, resterto stay, retournerto return, tomberto fall and their related forms such as: revenirto come back, rentrerto go back in, remonterto go back up, redescendreto go back down, repartirto leave again.
      Example:
      Je fus arrivé à la gare.I had arrived at the train station.

Check out our page on avoir/être to pick up some tips on remembering which verbs take être as their auxiliary in the compound tenses.

Info

We use avoir when descendre, (r)entrer, (re)monter, rentrer, retourner and sortir are followed by a direct object. In this case, the meaning of the verb often changes.

Example:
À quelle heure fus-tu sorti ce matin-là ?What time had you left that morning?
no direct object, sortir = leave
but: Eus-tu sorti les carottes du frigo hier soir ?Had you taken the carrots out of the fridge yesterday evening?
direct object: les carottes, sortir = take out

Participe passé: the past participle

For regular -er/-ir/-re verbs, the participe passé is easy to construct:

  • If the infinitive ends in -er, the participle ends in é
    Example:
    aimer – aimé
  • If the infinitive ends in-ir, the participle ends in i
    Example:
    finir – fini
  • If the infinitive ends in-re, the participle ends in u
    Example:
    vendre - vendu

For the irregular verbs, however, we have to look up the participle form in the list of irregular verbs or check the verb conjugator – or simply learn the forms by heart.

Agreement of the participe passé

For some verbs, the participe passé has to agree in gender and number with either the subject or the object of the sentence. This agreement is necessary in the following cases:

  • When a verb takes être as a help verb, the participle agrees in gender and number with the subject.
    Example:
    Il fut allé sous le balcon de sa bien-aimée.He had gone under the balcony of his beloved.
    Elle fut allée sur son balcon.She had gone on her balcony.
    Ils furent allés acheter une guitare.They had gone to buy a guitar.
    Elles furent allées ouvrir les fenêtres.They (only women) had gone to open the windows.
  • For verbs that take avoir in the passé antérieur, the participle only agrees in gender and number with a direct object that comes before the verb. This direct object can take three possible forms: a personal pronoun (me, te, le, la, nous, vous, les), the relative pronoun que, or a noun that comes before the verb (usually in questions and exclamations).
    Example:
    Il eut reçu son salaire. → Il l’eut reçu.He had received his first salary.
    Il eut reçu sa paie. → Il l’eut reçue.He had received his first pay cheque.
    Il eut rencontré les parents de sa bien-aimée. → Il les eut rencontrés.He had met the parents of his sweetheart.
    Il eut acheté des méthodes pour apprendre la guitare. → Il les eut achetées.He had bought books to learn to play guitar.
  • In the case of reflexive verbs (which always take être as their auxiliary in the passé antérieur), the participle generally agrees with the subject.
    Example:
    Nous nous étions levés très tôt.We had got up very early.

    The exception to this concerns direct objects: the participle does not agree if the reflexive verb is followed by a direct object.

    Example:
    Elle se fut lavé les mains.She had washed her hands. (elle se fut lavé quoi ? → les mains)
    but: Elle se fut lavée.She washed herself.
    Remember: the past participle never agrees with an indirect object.
    Example:
    Marie et Laurent se furent téléphoné.Marie and Laurent had called each other on the phone.
    se = indirect object (téléphoné à qui ? – who did they call?)
  • The participe passé does not agree with the subject of the following verbs: se téléphonerto phone each other, se parlerto talk to each other, se mentirto lie to each other, se plaire (complaire/déplaire)to like each other, se sourireto smile at each other, se rireto laugh at each other, se nuireto hurt each other, se succéderto succeed each other, se suffireto be enough, se ressemblerto look like each other, s’en vouloirto be annoyed with each other. This is because the reflexive pronoun is an indirect object. It is used in the sense of “each other” for these verbs.

se rendre compte

Although it is reflexive, the participle of the verb se rendre compte (to realise) does not agree with the subject of the sentence. This is because the word compte acts as a direct object (se rendre quoi? → compte).

Example:
Elle se fut rendu compte de son erreur.She had realised her mistake.

Signal words for the passé antérieur

The passé antérieur is mostly used in dependent clauses after the following conjunctions:

  • quandwhen
  • lorsquewhen
  • après queafter
  • dès queas soon as
  • aussitôt queas soon as
  • à peine … queno sooner had [sth]… than