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THE PERFECT TENSE (le passé composé)

The perfect tense is used orally and also in written French where it increasingly tends to be used in place of the past historic (another past tense that is mainly used for literary purposes).

The perfect tense is used to refer to completed actions in the past. Like the French present tense, it can have more than one translation into English: the passé composé can be translated into English using either the simple past or the present perfect. The context will usually tell you which one is most appropriate, which will be the one that sounds most natural to you. For instance, 'J'ai lu ce livre' can translate as either 'I have read this book' or 'I read this book'.

Formation

As its French name suggests, it is a compound tense. It is made up of an auxiliary and a past participle, just like the English present perfect (for example: I have eaten, he has left, etc.). However, in French, there are two possible auxiliaries: to have (avoir) and to be (être). Etre is used with pronominal verbs and with movement verbs while avoir is used with all other verbs.

As for the past participle, it is formed according to the following pattern:

Verbs in -er > é (ex: aller > allé, apporter > apporté)

Verbs in -ir> i (ex: finir > fini, aboutir > abouti)

Verbs in -re > u (ex: perdre > perdu, vendre > vendu)

The most common irregular past participles are presented in the table below. You can see by comparing the past participle to the infinitive of the verb it derives from (indicated in brackets) that the two forms can be very different: hence the need to familarise yourself with them. Please practice with the flash card activity so that you can identify them easily.

French past particple (infinitive) English equivalent
bu (boire) drunk
connu (connaître) known
cru (croire) believed
dû (devoir) had to, owed
écrit (écrire) written
été (être) been
eu (avoir) had
fait( faire) made, done
lu (lire) read
mis (mettre) put
offert (offrir) offered
ouvert (ouvrir) opened
plu (pleuvoir or plaire) rained, pleased
pris (prendre) taken
pu (pouvoir) was able to
reçu (recevoir) received
ri (rire) laughed
su (savoir) known
voulu (vouloir) wanted
vu (voir) seen


[D]
The following piece is a famous poem by Jacques Prévert. Try to spot all the verbs in the passé composé.


Déjeuner du matin

Il a mis le café

Dans la tasse

Il a mis le lait

Dans la tasse de café

Il a mis le sucre

Dans le café au lait

Avec la petite cuiller

Il a tourné

Il a bu le café au lait

Et il a reposé la tasse

Sans me parler

Il a allumé

Une cigarette

Il a fait des ronds

Avec la fumée

Il a mis les cendres

Dans le cendrier

Sans me parler

Sans me regarder

Il s'est levé

Il a mis

Son chapeau sur sa tête

Il a mis son manteau de pluie

Parce qu'il pleuvait

Et il est parti

Sous la pluie

Sans une parole

Sans me regarder

Et moi j'ai pris

Ma tête dans ma main

Et j'ai pleuré

Click here to see the answer

Click here to see a litteral translation of Prévert's poem