The Passé Composé

The passé composé (compound past tense), also referred to as the past indefinite, is made up of two parts, a helping verb and a past participle.

It is formed by using the present tense of the helping verb avoir (j'ai, tu as, il/elle a, nous avons, vous avez, ils/elles ont) or être (je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils/elles sont) and adding a past participle.

The passé composé with avoir

The past participle of regular verbs is formed by dropping the infinitive ending and adding ‐é for ‐er verbs, i for ‐ir verbs, and u for ‐re verbs. The past participles of irregular verbs must be memorized.

  • J'ai travaillé hier. (I worked yesterday.)
  • Il a choisi un bon livre. (He chose a good book.)
  • Ils ont vendu leur maison. (They sold their house.)

Past participles of verbs that use avoir as their helping verb agree in number and gender with a preceding direct‐object noun or pronoun. This is done by adding an ‐e to indicate a feminine noun or pronoun and an ‐s to indicate a plural noun or pronoun. No ‐s is added to a participle that already ends in ‐s:

  • La mousse Je l'ai préparée hier. (The mousse? I prepared it yesterday.)
  • Voici les trophées que mon fils a reçus. (Here are the trophies that my son received.)
  • Je ne me rappelle pas les bus que nous avons pris. (I don't remember the buses we took.)

The passé composé with être

Only 17 verbs use être as their helping verb. These verbs generally, but not always, express motion or a change of place, state, or condition, such as going up, going down, going in, going out, or remaining. The verbs are:

  • descendre (to go down)
  • rester (to remain)
  • mourir (to die)
  • retourner (to return)
  • sortir (to go out)
  • venir (to come)
  • arriver (to arrive)
  • naître (to be born)
  • devenir (to become)
  • entrer (to enter)
  • rentrer (to return)
  • tomber (to fall)
  • revenir (to come back)
  • aller (to go)
  • monter (to go up)
  • partir (to leave)
  • passer (to pass by)

When être is the helping verb, the past participle must agree in number and gender with the subject; this is done by adding ‐e for a feminine subject and ‐s for a plural subject:

  • Il est rentré. (He returned home.)
  • Elle est née en juin. (She was born in June.)
  • Nous sommes revenus hier. (We came back yesterday.)
  • Elles sont tombées. (They fell.)

Verbs that use être or avoir

The verbs descendre (to go down), monter (to go up), passer (to pass by), rentrer (to return home), retourner (to return), and sortir (to go out) generally use être as their helping verb. They may use avoir when the sentence contains a direct object. In these cases, their meaning changes: descendre (to take down), monter (to take up), passer (to spend time), rentrer (to bring in), retourner (to turn over), and sortir (to take out):

  • Je suis descendu. (I went downstairs.)
  • Je suis descendu du train. (I got off the train.)
  • J'ai descendu le livre. (I took the book down.)
  • Il est monté. (He went upstairs.)
  • Il a monté ses bagages. (He took his luggage upstairs.)
  • Il est passé par l'école. (He passed by the school.)
  • Il a passé une heure là‐bas. (He spent an hour there.)
  • Ils sont rentrés tard. (They came home late.)
  • Ils ont rentré le chien. (They brought in the dog.)
  • Elle est retournée ` Nice. (She returned to Nice.)
  • Elle a retourné la lettre. (She turned over the letter.)
  • Je suis sortie. (I went out.)
  • J'ai sorti mon argent. (I took out my money.)

The passé composé with reflexive verbs

Reflexive verbs use être as their helping verb. When the reflexive pronoun is also the direct object, the past participle agrees with the reflexive pronoun. When the reflexive pronoun is the indirect object (and, thus, the direct object comes after the verb), there is no agreement of the past participle with the reflexive pronoun.

  • Il s'est levé à six heures. (He got up at six o'clock.)
  • Elle s'est lavée. (She washed herself.)
  • Elle s'est lavé la figure. (She washed her face.)

Negating in the passé composé

To negate a sentence in the passé composé, put the negative expression around the conjugated helping verb and any pronouns that precede it:

  • Je n'ai pas fini mon dîner. (I haven't finished my dinner.)
  • Il n'a rien découvert. (He discovered nothing.)
  • Elle n'y est pas restée longtemps. (She didn't stay there a long time.)
  • Elles ne se sont jamais maquillées. (They never put on makeup.)

Questions in the passé composé

To form a question in the passé composé, invert the conjugated helping verb (with any pronouns related to it preceding it) with the subject pronoun, and add a hyphen. In general, avoid inverting with je; instead, use est‐ce que to form the question. With avoir, a ‐t‐ must be added when the subject is il or elle. Negatives surround the hyphenated inverted forms:

  • As‐tu oublié? (Did you forget?)
  • Lui a‐t‐elle parlé? (Did she speak to him?)
  • Y est‐elle arrivée? (Did she arrive there?)
  • Est‐ce que j'ai tort? (Am I wrong?)
  • N'a‐t‐il pas vu ce film? (Hasn't he seen this movie?)
  • Vous êtes‐vous préparé( e)( s) ? (Did you prepare yourself [yourselves]?)
  • Ne s'est‐elle pas levée? (Didn't she get up?)