Le plus-que-parfait: the pluperfect in French

What is the le plus-que-parfait?

Le plus-que-parfait corresponds to the past perfect tense in English. We use it to talk about an action or situation that took place before another past action. The plus-que-parfait is often used when telling stories and anecdotes to provide background information on situations that occurred prior to the main action of the story.

Learn everything you need to know about the plus-que-parfait tense in French grammar with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then test your knowledge in the exercises.

Example

Lors du concours de talents, Louise a joué sans fautes un morceau difficile à la flûte.

Elle avait beaucoup travaillé avant de pouvoir jouer le morceau parfaitement.

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When to use the plus-que-parfait in French

We use the plus-que-parfait to talk about an action that occurred before another action in the past.

This tense is usually used together with another past tense (such as the imparfait, the passé composé or the passé simple) and establishes the order of events: the action expressed in the plus-que-parfairt always occurred before the action expressed by the other past tenses.

Example:
Elle avait beaucoup travaillé avant de pouvoir jouer le morceau parfaitement.She had practised for a long time before she could play the piece so perfectly.

How to conjugate the plus-que-parfait in French

To conjugate the plus-que-parfait we use the imperfect forms of avoir and être as auxiliary verbs, followed by the participe passé (past participle) of the main verb.

Person avoir Participle être Participle
1st person singular (I) j’avais

aimé

fini

vendu

j’étais

parti

partie

partis

parties

2nd person singular (you) tu avais tu étais
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on avait il/elle/on était
1st person plural (we) nous avions nous étions
2nd person plural (you) vous aviez vous étiez
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles avaient ils/elles étaient

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

Example:
J’avais rigolé. → Je n’avais pas rigolé.I had laughed.→ I had not laughed.
J’étais parti.→ Je n’étais pas parti. I had left.→ I had not left.

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 m’étais pas trompé dans mon calcul.I had not miscalculated.

Avoir or être

Most verbs construct the plus-que-parfait using 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:
    J’étais parti(e) en vacances en Bretagne.I had gone to Brittany on holiday.
  • for reflexive verbs
    Example:
    Je m’étais trompé(e) dans mon calcul.I had miscalculated.

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 étais-tu sorti ce matin-là ? What time had you left that morning?
but: Avais-tu sorti les carottes du frigo hier soir ? Had you taken the carrots out of the fridge yesterday evening?

Participe passé: the past participle

For the 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 forms in the list of irregular verbs or check the verb conjugator – or simply learn the correct 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 était allé à l’école de musique.He had gone to music school.
    Elle était allée à l’école de musique.She had gone to music school.
    Ils étaient allés à l’école de musique.They had gone to music school.
    Elles étaient allées à l’école de musique.They (only women) had gone to music school.
  • For verbs that take avoir in the plus-que-parfait, 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, la, nous, vous, les), the relative pronoun que, or a noun placed before the verb (usually in questions and exclamations).
    Example:
    Elle avait acheté un tambour. → Elle l’avait acheté.She had bought a drum.
    Elle avait acheté une flûte. → Elle l’avait achetée.She had bought a flute.
    Elle avait rencontré d’autres artistes. → Elle les avait rencontrés.She had met other artists.
    Son père avait acheté des places ce concert. → Son père les avait achetées.His father had bought concert tickets.
  • In the case of reflexive verbs (which always take être as their auxiliary in the plus-que-parfait), 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 s’était lavé les mains.She had washed her hands.
    but: Elle s’était lavée.She had washed herself.
    Remember: the participe passé never agrees with an indirect object.
    Example:
    Marie et Laurent s’étaient 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 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’était rendu compte de son erreur.She had realised her mistake.