There’s always more to learn about French verbs when you’re working on mastering the language! Tutor Carol Beth shares an important difference you need to know about certain verbs in the passé composé…
Perhaps you are beginning to have a handle on some of the primary verbal forms in French – le present, le futur, imparfait, and passé composé for most verbs.
If you’re wondering when to use être or avoir in passé composé (past tense), you’re in the right place! When expressing specific actions in the past – most notably with actions involving motion of some kind – some verbs are formed with the auxiliary verb être instead of avoir.
Common French Verbs of Motion
Since the French verb être is often used with verbs of motion, let’s look at what those are. They’re exactly what they sound like – they are verbs that express transitions from one place to another, or occasionally, a lack of transition. Some verbs of motion, along with their past participles, include:
- aller (to go) → allé(e)(s)
- descendre (to go or step down) → descendu(e)(s)
- monter (to go or step up) → monté(e)(s)
- sortir (to go out) → sorti(e)(s)
- partir (to leave) → parti(e)(s)
- venir (to come) → venu(e)(s)
- revenir (to come back) → revenu(e)(s)
- rester (to stay) → resté(e)(s)
Note that the basic past participle form for almost all these French verbs follows the same regular pattern as other verbs with the same ending (-er, –ir, or –re). Even aller, which is normally an irregular verb in the present tense, follows the same pattern as other –er verbs. The only exceptions on this list are the irregular verbs venir (venu) and revenir (revenu).
How Do You Conjugate Être in the Past Tense?
Now you can form the past tense with être! Like the past tense with avoir, to make être past tense, you use it in the present tense and add the appropriate past participle for the action you wish to express. For example:
- Je suis descendu du train. I stepped off/down from the train.
- Tu es sorti aller au parc. You went out to go to the park.
(If you need to brush up on the present tense of the verb être, take a look at this article on irregular French verbs.)
Remember to Agree with Number and Gender!
Now, let’s take a look at the variations in the participles that come along with French verbs of motion. You may be wondering why there are extra e’s and s’s in parentheses after the past participles listed above.
Whenever you use être as the auxiliary verb (and you will also use être for the passé composé of reflexive verbs when you learn about them, if you haven’t already), the past participle must agree with the subject’s number and gender. The first example above assumes a male speaker, while the second assumes the speaker is talking to a boy or man at the same social level.
Past participles will change in the same way that adjectives change, adding –e for a feminine subject and an –s for a plural subject.
Past Participle Examples
- Il est allé à la bibliothèque. He went to the library.
- Elle est allée à la bibliothèque. She went to the library.
- Ils sont allés à la bibliothèque. They (including at least one male) went to the library.
- Elles sont allées à la bibliothèque. They (all females) went to the library.
- Je suis allée à la bibliothèque. I went to the library (and I happen to be a female).
- Nous sommes allés à la bibliothèque. We (including at least one male) went to the library.
- Vous êtes allées à la bibliothèque. You (and you’re all females) went to the library.
This variation with gender and number is usually the most challenging part for non-native speakers to remember. You might also note that for vous, all forms of the past participle could be valid, depending on the situation:
- Vous êtes allé. You went (and you are a male and my social superior or someone I don’t know well yet).
- Vous êtes allée. You went (and you’re a female and my social superior or someone I don’t know well yet).
- Vous êtes allés. You went (and there are more than one of you, including at least one male).
- Vous êtes allées. You went (and there are more than one of you and all females).
You may also be interested in: French Conjugation Charts: A Look at Verbs & How to Use Them
How to Conjugate French Verbs of Motion: Être Past Tense
Let’s check out a couple of charts that will help you conjugate the French verb être for past tense.
|Être (Present Tense)||+ past participle|
Past participles of common French verbs:
|aller (to go)||allé(e)(s)|
|descendre (to go or step down)||descendu(e)(s)|
|monter (to go or step up)||monté(e)(s)|
|sortir (to go out)||sorti(e)(s)|
|partir (to leave)||parti(e)(s)|
|venir (to come)||venu(e)(s)|
|revenir (to come back)||revenu(e)(s)|
|rester (to stay)||resté(e)(s)|
Example of using past tense être in a sentence:
- Je suis descendu du train. (I stepped off/down from the train.)
- Tu es sorti aller au parc. (You went out to go to the park.)
- Il est allé à la bibliothèque. (He went to the library.)
- Elle est allée à la bibliothèque. (She went to the library.)
Practicing How to Conjugate French Verbs of Motion: Être Past Tense
Let’s try a few examples to practice. Fill in the blank with the appropriate past tense of the verb in parenthesis.
- Vous _________________ (partir) hier. (You are talking to a male and a female.)
You left yesterday.
- Nous _________________ (aller) au cinéma. (You decide if the group has males in it or not.)
We went to the movie theater.
- Tu _________________ (venir) chez moi la semaine dernière. (You are talking to a female.)
You came to my house last week.
- Ils _________________ (rester) à l’école jusqu’ à 18 heures.
They stayed at school until 6:00 p.m.
- Je _________________ (monter) sur le train.
I stepped onto the bus.
Now check your answers to see how you did!
- êtes partis
- If the group has at least one male : sommes allés;
If you’re all females: sommes allées
- es venue
- sont restés
- If you are a male: suis monté;
If you are a female: suis montée
How did you do? Keep practicing and checking yourself, and whenever you run across a verb of motion, remind yourself to use the French verb être for the passé composé.
Have Fun Learning French Verbs!
Interested in learning more about French verbs? The best way to learn any language is through individualized instruction with a qualified tutor. It helps to work with someone who has the knowledge and resources to help you learn French verb être and other skills to succeed as a fluent French speaker.
Photo by Hernán Piñera