Ready to try your hand at speaking about past events in French? Tutor Carol Beth L. shares the grammar you’ll need to know…
So perhaps you know now how to conjugate French verbs in the present tense. You can talk about things that are happening now. But what about what happened yesterday, last week, or last year?
The basic past tense in French, also known as the passé composé, is used to talk about events in the past. It is aptly named because it is composed (composé) of two parts: the auxiliary verb (le verbe auxiliaire), and the past participle (le participe passé).
1) The auxiliary verb is usually the verb “avoir” (to have) conjugated in the present tense:
Il / elle / on a
Ils / Elles ont
The exception to this is reflexive verbs and verbs of motion, such as aller, venir, revenir, monter, descendre, etc. These verbs, in order, mean to go, to come, to come back, to go up or to enter, and to go down or exit. These verbs use the present tense of the verb être. (Learn the present tense conjugation of this verb, along with other irregular verbs) The past participle of verbs using the auxiliary verb être also vary depending on whether the subject is singular, plural, masculine, or feminine. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to regular, non-reflexive verbs here, and avoid verbs of motion.
2) Like the present tense for most verbs, the past participle is formed in a regular fashion for regular verbs. For -er verbs, take off the -er ending and add é:
aimer (to like) → aimé
compter (to count) → compté
For -ir verbs, take off the -ir ending and add i:
finir (to finish) → fini
choisir (to choose) → choisi
For -re verbs, take off the -re ending and add u:
rendre (to give back) → rendu
perdre (to lose) → perdu
Put the two parts together and you have the complete past tense of the verb:
J’ai fini → I finished.
Il a perdu → He lost.
On a gagné → We won. (Note: This is a common chant for a winning team and its fans at sports events like soccer games. Note also: “on” literally translates to “one [person]” or “a person,” but is used here to imply “we.”)
Avid French students might notice that the sentences above literally translate to “I have finished,” “He has lost,” and “We have won” respectively. In English, this verbal form would be interpreted as present perfect tense, not past tense. The sentences above are translated into English as they are on the list above because the passé composé in French does not correspond to our present perfect tense. Its meaning corresponds most closely to our simple past tense. In fact, strictly speaking, there is no present perfect tense in French grammar; they are merely conjugated in a similar fashion.
Try putting together the past tense in the context of the following sentences by transforming the verb in parenthesis into the past tense. All verbs here conjugate in the past tense as regular -er, -ir, or -re verbs. Most will use the auxiliary verb avoir, but look out for verbs of motion or direction that might take the verb être. If in doubt, look at the list of motion verbs above.
1) Je (J’) ________________ (compter) jusqu’à cent. (I counted up to a hundred.)
2) Nous ________________ (perdre) nos devoirs. (We lost our homework.)
3) Ils ________________ (choisir) la feutre bleue. (They chose the blue marker.)
4) Vous ________________ (finir) vos devoirs. (You have finished your homework.)
5) Elle ________________ (nager) mille metres. (She swam a thousand meters.)
6) Tu ________________ (marcher) deux kilometres. (You walked two kilometers.)
So how do you think you did? Here are a the answers:
1) ai compté
2) avons perdu
3) ont choisi
4) avez fini
5) a nagé
6) as marché
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Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
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