The French passé composé, or past perfect tense, is the most common tense for talking about the past. It’s a two-part verb tense, meaning you need a helping verb and a past participle to form it.

In other words, the Past Perfect Tense = Helping Verb + Past Participle

Using the Helping Verb

The helping verb used for almost all verbs is the present tense conjugation of avoir for whatever the subject of the sentence is. Below, we discuss the exceptions to this rule that are conjugated with the present tense of etre as the the helping verb instead.

Forming the Past Participle with Regular Verbs

The past participle is a special form of the verb of the sentence. Its form will not change, no matter what the conjugation of the helping verb is. Most past participles of French verbs them fall into set patterns, but some are irregular and you will have to memorize.

-ER Verbs

Drop the –er, add é

Manger: Tu mangesTu as mangé

-IR Verbs

Drop the –ir, add i

Choisir: Il choisitIl a choisi

-RE Verbs

Drop the –re, add u

Vendre:Vous vendezVous avez vendu

Irregular Past Participles

Just like most other verb forms, the French perfect tense conjugations of certain common verbs are irregular. Many fall into recognizable groups based on their endings. For example:

Rire: Je ris  → j’ai ri and Sourire: je souris → J’ai souri

Ouvrir: J’ouvre → j’ai ouvert and Couvrir: je couvre → J’ai couvert

Verb Form Past Participle
avoir eu
être été
dire dit
écrire écrit
faire fait
rire rit
venir venu
tenir tenu
ouvrir ouvert
couvrir couvert
connaître connu
rire ri
sourire souri
boire bu
croire cru
prendre pris
mettre mis
vivre vécu
boire bu
croire cru

Okay, once you have all that down, are you ready to be thoroughly confused? You may have noticed that there are some important verbs missing from our list up there. Most noticeably, there’s no aller, one of our fundamental verbs, on that list.

Why not? Because a select few verbs don’t get conjugated with the conjugation of avoir. It’s a limited list, don’t worry, but some vital verbs you should learn are on that list.

To make sense of past tense in French, think of the avoir conjugation in this lesson as the general rule. The vast majority of verbs will follow it. If you are presented with a verb that’s not on the list in the next lesson, the method in this lesson is how you should conjugate it.

HOWEVER, that means you also have to learn the “exception” verbs in the next lesson. Luckily, they’re only a little more complicated.

Next lesson (the être verbs)

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