Le passé composé: the past tense in French

What is the passé composé?

The passé composé is the most important past tense in French. It corresponds to the English simple past or sometimes the present perfect. The passé composé talks about actions that were completed in the past and emphasises their results or consequences in the present. In spoken language, the passé composé is always used instead of the passé simple. We form the passé composé using the auxiliary verbs avoir or être followed by the past participle (le participe passé) of the verb.

Learn everything you need to know about the French passé composé with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

Example

Hier, Michel a rangé son bureau.

Il a décidé de ranger son bureau chaque semaine.

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When to use the passé composé in French

We use the passé composé to talk about one-time, completed actions that took place in the past. This tense places the emphasis on the result or consequences of the action.

Example:
Hier, Michel a rangé son bureau.Yesterday, Michael tidied up his office.
one-time action in the past
Il a décidé de ranger son bureau chaque semaine.He has decided to clean his office every week.
one-time past action with a connection to the present: He doesn’t want to be so untidy anymore.

Learners of French often find it difficult to know when to use the passé composé and when to use the imperfect tense. Go to our dedicated page on imparfait vs. passé composé to learn when to use which tense, then test yourself in the free exercises.

How to conjugate the passé composé in French

To conjugate the passé composé we use the present tense 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 (I) j’ai

aimé

fini

vendu

je suis

parti

partie

partis

parties

2nd person singular (you) tu as tu es
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on a il/elle/on est
1st person plural (we) nous avons nous sommes
2nd person plural (you) vous avez vous êtes
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles ont ils/elles sont

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

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, the reflexive pronoun comes after the first part of the negation (ne) and before the auxiliary verb (avoir/être).

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

To see the conjugation of any French verb in the passé composé go to our verb conjugator.

Avoir or être

Most verbs construct the passé composé with avoir, however être is used as the auxiliary verb in the following cases:

  • with 14 verbs of motion and staying still: 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 suis arrivé à la gare.I arrived at the station.
  • with 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: 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 past 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 situations:

  • When a verb takes être as a help verb 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 take avoir in the passé composé, 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 placed before the verb (usually in questions and exclamations).
    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).
  • In the case of reflexive verbs (which always take être as their auxiliary in the passé composé), the participle generally agrees with the subject.
    Example:
    Nous nous sommes levés très tôt.We got up very early.
    However, the past participle does not agree if the verb is followed by a direct object.
    Example:
    Elle s’est lavé les mains.She washed her hands. (What did she wash? – her hands)
    but: Elle s’est lavée.
    Remember: the participe passé never agrees with an indirect object.
    Example:
    Marie et Laurent se sont téléphoné.Marie and Laurent 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 call 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 reflextive, the past 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 s’est rendu compte de son erreur.She realised her mistake.