There’s always more to learn about French verbs! Tutor Carol Beth shares an important difference you need to know about certain verbs in the passé composé…
For the passé composé, however, if you only know how to form it with avoir as the auxiliary verb (le verbe auxiliaire), watch out! When expressing certain 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
Verbs of motion are 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 same the 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).
Forming the Past Tense with Être
Now you can form the past tense with être! Similarly to the past tense with avoir, conjugate the verb être in the present tense, and use 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 post 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. See the examples below for variations in the use of past participles:
- 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 hardest part for non-native speakers to remember. You might note also 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).
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 French verb of motion, remind yourself to use être for the passé composé.
Interested in learning more about French verbs? The best way to learn any language is through individualized instruction with a qualified tutor, who has the knowledge and resources to help you succeed in becoming a fluent French speaker. Sign up with a French tutor today!
Photo by Hernán Piñera