Le Passé Composé: Everything you need about this French past tense

Celine Segueg

The Passé composé is probably the most important French past tense. Its primary usage is to talk about actions completed in the past, which in English, would correspond to the simple past or present perfect.

The passé composé is the French past tense that is the closest in time to the present. It is constantly used in spoken French language to talk about past actions. The other main past tenses in French are the imparfait and the passé simple.

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To conjugate the passé composé, we use the auxiliary verb avoir or être, followed by the past participle of the verb. In this post, we’ll guide you through the various usages of this French past tense, how to determine which auxiliary verb to use, and how to correctly conjugate them. So by the end of this post, you’ll know everything you need about le passé composé in French!

When to use the French past tense passé composé

The passé composé is a French past tense mainly used to talk about past events that are finished in the present. In this section we’ll cover the different contexts in which we use the passé composé in the French language, illustrated by various examples.

To talk about a past event that is finished in the present

The primary usage of the passé composé is to talk about events that took place in the past and are no longer happening in the present.

  • This morning, I had breakfast with Martin. – Ce matin, j’ai déjeuné avec Martin.
  • She arrived late in the evening. – Elle est arrivée tard dans la soirée.

To refer to a unique past event

The passé composé is also used to refer to past events that can only happen once.

  • He was born in 1993. – Il est  en 1993

To talk about past events with a specific duration

When we speak about a past event with a specific duration, we use the passé composé in French. Usually, that duration is indicated by a French preposition of time, such as “à”, “de”, or “pendant.”

  • I worked at Galeries Lafayettes between 2016 and 2019. – J’ai travaillé aux Galeries Lafayettes de 2016 à 2019.
  • She studied French for the first three years of her Bachelor’s degree. – Elle a étudié le français pendant les trois premières années de sa licence.

To talk about successive actions

We use the passé composé to describe completed past actions that are following each other.

  • This morning I woke up early, I drank my coffee, I exercised a bit, and then I went to work. – Ce matin je me suis levé de bonne heure, j’ai bu mon café, j’ai fait un peu de sport et ensuite je suis parti au travail.

That’s why the passé composé is often used rather than the passé simple to narrate the main actions.

  • You won’t believe what happened! She stormed out of the room and threw everything up in the air. – Tu ne vas pas croire ce qu’il s’est passé ! Elle est sortie en furie de la pièce et a tout balancé en l’air.

To talk about the repetition of an action

The passé composé is used to talk about the repetition of the same action.

  • I went to visit her at the hospital several times this week. – Je suis allé la voir plusieurs fois à l’hôpital cette semaine.
  • I ate outside every day of the week. – J’ai mangé dehors tous les jours de la semaine.

To make a statement that was true in the past and still is

We can also use the passé composé to express affirmations that were true before and still are.

  • I always loved spending my Sundays with her. – J’ai toujours adoré passer mes dimanches avec elle.
  • I never accepted one penny from him and I never will. – Je n’ai jamais accepté un centime de sa part et je ne le ferai jamais.

To show a change in a past situation

Using the passé composé also helps to convey the meaning of a sudden change to highlight this action.

  • I was asleep when suddenly my phone rang. – Je dormais quand soudainement mon téléphone a sonné.

To talk about a future completed action

Sometimes this French past tense can also be used to talk about a future action. It’s the case when this future action is already considered finished when talking about it.

  • He has soon finished his interview. – Il a bientôt terminé son entretien.
  • Wait for me, I’m almost done. – Attends-moi, j’ai presque terminé.

To make a hypothesis with a future tense or imperative

Similarly, the passé composé can also be used to talk about a hypothetical action that will have finished taking place before another action that’s expressed in the future or imperative.

  • If you haven’t returned at 8 o’clock, I will leave without you. – Si tu n’es pas revenu à 8 heures, je partirai sans toi.

How to conjugate the passé composé

Now that you’re familiar with the different usages of the passé composé, let’s see how it is conjugated. As a compound tense, this French past tense is formed with the present tense of the auxiliary verb avoir or être, followed by the past participle of the main verb.

For instance, with the verb “aller” (to go), the passé composé conjugation goes like this:

  •  I went home. – Je suis allé à la maison.

To use the passé composé, you must hence know which auxiliary verb to use between avoir and être, properly conjugate them, form the past participle, and make sure it correctly agrees with the subject. So, let’s continue to find out how to do all this!

How to choose between “être” and “avoir”

In French, there are two auxiliary verbs: “être” (to be) and “avoir” (to have). Most of the verbs in passé composé are formed with the auxiliary verb “avoir.” The auxiliary verb “être” is used with a specific subset of French verbs, as well as with reflexive verbs.

Verbs that use “avoir” in the passé composé

Most verbs are formed with the auxiliary verb “avoir.” The passé composé conjugation is constructed with the present tense of “avoir” followed by the past participle of the action verb.

For example, here’s how to conjugate “donner” (to give) in passé composé:

Subject Auxiliary verb “avoir” Past participle
j’ ai donné
tu as donné
il, elle a donné
nous avons donné
vous avez donné
ils, elles ont donné

To learn more about this auxiliary verb, we have a full post on avoir conjugation and meanings.

Verbs that use “être” in the passé composé

A few verbs are formed in a similar way, but with the auxiliary verb être.  Let’s check out how we form the passé composé with être, with the example of the verb “devenir” (to become):

Subject Auxiliary verb “être” Past participle
je suis devenu(e)
tu es devenu(e)
il, elle est devenu(e)
nous sommes devenu(e)s
vous êtes devenu(e)s
ils, elles sont devenu(e)s

To learn more about this auxiliary verb, see our post covering the French verb être.

There are only a few verbs that take “être” as their auxiliary verb in compound conjugations. They are the 14 verbs expressing movement or a status change. Here’s the list you’ll have to learn by heart:

French être verb infinitive English verb infinitive
Entrer To enter
Sortir To go out
Passer To pass
Rester To stay
Arriver To arrive, To happen
Partir To leave
Aller To go
Venir To come
Naître To be born
Mourir To die
Retourner To come back
Tomber To fall
Monter To go up
Descendre To go down

Note that other verbs that are derivations of these ones, such as “revenir” (to come back) or “renaître” (to be reborn) are also conjugated with the auxiliary verb être.

In addition to this list of French être verbs, we also uses the auxiliary verb être with the passé composé for all the reflexive verbs such as “se laver” (to take a shower), “s’asseoir” (to sit), “s’amuser” (to have fun), etc. Let’s see their conjugation with the example of “se laver”.

Subject Reflexive pronoun + auxiliary verb “être” Participle
je me suis lavé(e)
tu t’es lavé(e)
il, elle s’est lavé(e)
nous nous sommes lavé(e)s
vous vous êtes lavé(e)s
ils, elles se sont lavé(e)s

Pay attention to the placement of the ne… pas when using negation with reflexive verbs in the passé composé: the ne goes before the reflexive pronoun, while pas goes between the conjugated auxiliary verb and the past participle.

  • I didn’t brush my teeth. – Je ne me suis pas lavé les dents.

Verbs that can take either “être” or “avoir”

Depending on the meaning they convey, some verbs can be conjugated either with “être” or with “avoir.” The key to using “être” is that the action is being done on the subject, while if the action is being done by someone else then it can take “avoir.”

  • She went up to the second floor. – Elle est montée au deuxième étage.
  • We got her up to the second floor – Nous l’avons montée au deuxième étage.
  • She is divorced. – Elle est divorcée.
  • She divorced. – Elle a divorcé.

Passé composé: How to form the past participle

Now that you have your auxiliary verb, you can continue forming your sentence! To build the past participle, you need to determine to which group the verb belongs, by looking at its infinitive.

If it’s a verb from the first group, with the infinitive ending in –er, the participle ends in é.

  • He has eaten cheese. – Il a mangé du fromage.

If it’s a verb from the second group, with the infinitive ending in –ir, the participle ends in i.

  • They finished their homework. – Ils ont fini leurs devoirs.

If it’s a verb from the third group, with the infinitive ending in –re, the participle ends in u.

  • I sold my house. – J’ai vendu ma maison.

For the irregular verbs, you need to refer to the specific participle form for each one.

Agreements of the past participle

Let us tell you a secret: many native French speakers cannot correctly make the agreements in passé composé! But don’t be afraid! It’s not that complicated, as long as you know the following rules.

When the passé composé is formed with the auxiliary verb “avoir”, the past participle does not change form to agree in gender and number with the subject.

  • They lost their game – Elles ont perdu leur match.

There is an exception to this rule on verbs that take the auxiliaury verb “avoir,” however, and it comes down to word order in a sentence. In sentence structures where the direct object comes before the past participle, the past participle needs to agree in gender and number with the direct object.

  • These are the pictures she took. You’ve already seen them?  – Ce sont les photographies qu’elle a prises. Tu les as déjà vues?

When the passé composé is formed with the auxiliary verb “être,” the past participle always agrees in gender and number with the subject.

  • She went to the hairdresser. – Elle est allée chez la coiffeuse.
  • They left around 8 P.M. – Ils sont partis vers 20 heures.

Likewise, for reflexive verbs (which are always conjugated with “être”), the past participle usually agrees with the subject… except when the sentence structure calls for it to agree with the direct object as we saw above.

  • She washed her hands. – Elle s’est lavée les mains.

Conclusion: The passé composé

Alongside the imparfait, the passé composé is one of the two French past tenses that you will encounter the most. This is particularly true in the spoken French language where it is almost always used to talk about the past.

With the passé composé, the main difficulty is knowing whether to use the auxiliary verb “avoir” or “être,” and whether the past participle should remain unchanged or if it needs to agree with the subject or the direct object.

Once you master the passé composé rules we covered here, you’ll be using this French past tense just like native speakers!