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French Past Tenses: The Perfect Tense



The perfect tense is a compound tense (it uses two verbs) and is used to say that you did something in the past. In particularly it is used for a discrete event, i.e. something that you did and has finished, for example you ate something, or watched a film. There are other tenses such as:the imperfect which is used for something that isn’t an event (e.g. it rained) or for routine events (e.g. every day I had lunch at noon) the pluperfect which is for two related things that happened in the past where one occurred before the other, and the simple past which is used in children’s fairy tales.

The perfect tense is often used with time phrases such as:

  • hier (yesterday)
  • hier soir (yesterday evening)
  • le week-end dernier (last weekend)
  • lundi dernier (last Monday)
  • la semaine dernière (last week)
  • le mois dernier (last month)
  • l'année dernière (last year)

You use two parts to form the perfect tense: (1) avoir or être, (2) the past particle of the main verb. Être is used with a specific 14 verbs, and avoir with everything else.

There are just 6 things you need to know to master the Perfect Tense.

1. Using être with the perfect tense

Use the present form of être:

  • je suis…
  • tu es…
  • il/elle/on est…
  • nous sommes…
  • vous êtes…
  • ils/elles sont…

2. Être Past Participles

Use être with the past participle of these 14 verbs:

  • monté (monter): to go up
  • retourné (retourner): to return
  • resté (rester): to stay
  • venu (venir): to come
  • arrivé (arriver): to arrive
  • né (naître): to be born
  • sorti (sortir): to go out
  • tombé (tomber): to fall
  • rentré (rentrer): to go back in
  • allé (aller): to go
  • mort (mourir): to die
  • parti (partir): to leave
  • entré (entrer): to enter
  • descendu (descendre): to go down/to get off

3. Être Verbs Follow the Subject

When you use être add an e on if it is feminine and add an s if it is plural (or both if feminine and plural). For example:

  • il est parti - he has left
  • elle est partie - she has left
  • ils sont partis - they (male or mixed group) have left
  • elles sont parties - they (female group) have left

4. Using avoir with the perfect tense

Use the present form of avoir:

  • j’ai…
  • tu as…
  • il/elle/on a…
  • nous avons…
  • vous avez…
  • ils/elles ont…

5. Avoir Past Participles – Regular Verbs

The past participle of regular verbs:

  1. verbs ending in –er: take off -er and add –é. E.g. parler (to speak) → parlé
  2. verbs ending in -ir, take off -ir and add –i. e.g. choisir (to choose) → choisi
  3. verbs ending -re, take off -re and add –u. e.g. vendre (to sell) → vendu

6. Avoir Past Participles – Irregular Verbs

The past participle of irregular verbs:

  1. avoir (had) eu
  2. boire (drunk) bu
  3. comprendre (understood) compris
  4. conduire (driven/drove) conduit
  5. connaître (known) connu
  6. croire (believed) cru
  7. devoir (had to)
  8. dire (said) dit
  9. écrire (written) écrit
  10. être (been) été
  11. faire (done/made) fait
  12. lire (read) lu
  13. mettre (put) mis
  14. offrir (offered) offert
  15. ouvrir (opened) ouvert
  16. pleuvoir (rained) plu
  17. pouvoir (been able to) pu
  18. prendre (taken) pris
  19. recevoir (received) reçu
  20. savoir (known) su
  21. voir (seen) vu
  22. vouloir (wanted) voulu