Le passé composé (present perfect)

Introduction

The passé composé can be translated with the present perfect or the simple past in English. We use it to indicate that an action in the past has been completed. We use this form in particular to emphasise the results or consequences of the action.

In everyday language, the passé composé is also often used instead of the passé simple.

Beispiel

Hier, Michel a rangé son bureau.

Il a décidé de ranger son bureau chaque semaine.

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Usage

A single, completed action in the past, with the emphasis on the result or consequences of the action.

Example:
Hier, Michel a rangé son bureau.Yesterday Michael cleaned up his office.

single (one-time) action
Result: The office is clean now.

Il a décidé de ranger son bureau chaque semaine.He has decided to clean his office every week.

Result: He doesn’t want to be so untidy anymore.

Construction

We need the present-tense forms of avoir/être and the past participle (Participe passé).

personavoir être
1st person singular j’ai

aimé

fini

vendu

je suis

parti

partie

partis

parties

2nd person singular tu as tu es
3rd person singular il/elle/on a il/elle/on est
1st person plural nous avons nous sommes
2nd person plural vous avez vous êtes
3rd person plural ils/elles ont ils/elles sont

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

Example:
J’ai rigolé. → Je n’ai pas rigolé.I laughed.→ I didn’t laugh.
Je suis parti.→ Je ne suis pas parti. I left.→ I didn’t leave.

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

Example:
Je ne me suis pas trompé dans mon calcul.I didn’t make a mistake in my calculations.

Avoir or être

Most verbs construct the passé composé with avoir. The auxiliary verb être is used instead:

  • for 14 verbs of motion and staying still: naître/mourir, aller/venir, monter/descendre, arriver/partir, entrer/sortir,apparaître, rester, retourner, tomber and e.g. their derivative forms: revenir, rentrer, remonter, redescendre, repartir.
    Example:
    Je suis arrivé à la gare.I arrived at the station.
  • for reflexive verbs
    Example:
    Je me suis trompé dans mon calcul.I’ve made a mistake in my calculations.

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 es-tu sorti ce matin ? What time did you leave this morning?
but: As-tu sorti les carottes du frigo hier soir ? Did you take the carrots out of the fridge yesterday evening?

Participe passé

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 learn the forms by heart.

Agreement of the participe passé

For some verbs, we need to make the participe passé agree in gender and number with either the subject or the object of the sentence.

  • For verbs that are constructed using être, the participle agrees in gender and number with the subject.
    Example:
    Il est allé dans son bureau.He went to his office.
    Elle est allée dans son bureau.She went to her office.
    Ils sont allés dans leurs bureaux.They went to their offices.
    Elles sont allées dans leurs bureaux.They (only women) went to their offices.
  • For verbs that are constructed using avoir, the participle agrees in gender and number with a direct object coming before the verb; otherwise it is invariable. If a pronoun is being used as a direct object, the pronoun comes before the verb, and the participe passé agrees in gender and number with this object.
    Example:
    Il a rangé son bureau. → Il l'a rangé.He cleaned up his office. → He cleaned it (Fr. masc. sing.) up.
    Il a rangé sa chambre. → Il l'a rangée.He cleaned up his room.→ He cleaned it (Fr. fem. sing.) up.
    Il a rangé ses dossiers. → Il les a rangés.He sorted his files. → He sorted them (Fr. masc. plural).
    Il a rangé ses cartes de visite. → Il les a rangées.He sorted his business cards.→ He sorted them (Fr. fem. plural).
  • The participe passé of reflexive verbs generally agrees with the subject.
    Example:
    Elle s’est lavée.She washed herself.

    The subject (elle) and the direct object (s’= reflexive pronoun) are the same person, so the participle agrees with the subject.

    But the participe passé does not agree with the subject if the verb is followed by a direct object which is different from the subject.

    Example:
    Elle s’est lavé les mains.She washed her hands.

    When using the verb se rendre compte, the participe passé does also not agree with the subject. This is because compte acts as a direct object.

    Example:
    Elle s’est rendu compte de son erreur. She realised her mistake.

    The participe passé does not agree with the subject of the follwing verbs: se téléphoner, se parler, se mentir, se plaire (complaire/déplaire), se sourire, se rire, se nuire, se succéder, se suffire, se ressembler, s’en vouloir. This is because the reflexive pronoun is an indirect object. It is used in the sense of “each other” for these verbs.

    Example:
    Marie et Laurent se sont téléphoné.Marie and Laurent spoke on the telephone. (téléphoner à)