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TNs, U35: Verbs: Compound Past 1(Auxiliaries, Past Participles, Agreement, Using the PC)

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Compound verbs contain at least two words: a conjugated auxiliary and a past participle. In this unit, we will cover the passé composé (PC), which can translate to the English past simple or present perfect.

The French PC is the tense of choice to translate the English past simple. The French language also has a past simple tense, but it has run out of use, except in formal writing and in third person singular and plural.

  • Elle a vu ce chien. — She has seen/saw that dog.
  • Ils ont dit la vérité. — They (have) told the truth.

In both languages, the compound verb begins with an auxiliary verb (avoir and "to have" here) that is conjugated according to the subject. A past participle (e.g. vu or "seen") follows the auxiliary and remains invariable.

With the auxiliary avoir, the past participle never agrees with the subject.

Auxiliaries

In English, the active present perfect has only one auxiliary verb ("to have"), but the PC has two: avoir and être. Most verbs use avoir.

  • J'ai été malade. — I have been sick.
  • Il a appelé un docteur. — He has called a doctor.

A handful of verbs use être. The mnemonic "ADVENT" may help you remember these.

Initial Verb Opposite Verb Related Verbs
Arriver (arrive) partir (leave)
Descendre (descend) monter (ascend)
Venir (come) aller (go) devenir (become), revenir (return)
Entrer (enter) sortir (leave) rentrer (re-enter)
Naître (be born) mourir (die)
Tomber (fall)

The remaining verbs are passer (pass), rester (stay), retourner (return), and accourir (run up). Notice that être verbs often involve movement or transformation.

  • Il est venu. — He has come.
  • Septembre est passé. — September has passed.
  • Je suis devenu roi. — I have become king.

Also, all pronominal verbs use être.

  • Elle s'est souvenue de ses amis. — She has remembered her friends.
  • Ils se sont rasés. — They have shaved.

With the auxiliary être, the past participle agrees with the subject.

Object pronouns, negations, and inversions appear around the auxiliary.

  • Je l'ai entendu(e). — I have heard him (her).
  • Il ne m'a pas trouvé(e). — He has not found me.
  • Avez-vous vu les robes ? — Have you seen the dresses?
  • Pourquoi l'avez- vous fait ? — Why have you done it?

Past Participles

A participle is a special non-conjugated form of a verb. Most participles are formed by adding an ending to a verb's root.

Group Ending Example
-er verbs manger ⇒ mangé
-ir verbs -i choisir ⇒ choisi
-re verbs -u vendre ⇒ vendu

Unfortunately, most irregular verbs have irregular participles. For instance, the past participle of venir is venu.

  • Il est venu. — He has come.
  • Les filles sont venues. — The girls have come.

Note that participles vary with gender and number just like adjectives when the auxiliary is être.

Gender Singular Plural
Masculine venu venus
Feminine venue venues

Adverbs appear right before the participle.

  • Je l’ai souvent entendu. — I often heard him/her/it.
  • Je vous en ai déjà parlé. — I already talked to you about it.

Participle Agreement

A participle that follows avoir is usually invariable.

  • L'homme a mangé. — The man has eaten.
  • Les femmes ont mangé. — The women have eaten.

However, if a direct object appears before avoir, its participle agrees with the direct object. Below, vues agrees with the plural feminine robes because les precedes the verb.

  • Tu as vu les robes ? — Have you seen the dresses?
  • Oui, je les ai vues. — Yes, I have seen them.

A participle that follows être agrees with the subject.

  • L'homme est venu. — The man has come.
  • Les hommes sont venus. — The men have come.
  • La femme est venue. — The woman has come.
  • Les femmes sont venues. — The women have come.

However, if a pronominal verb is intransitive, then the participle is invariable. For instance, compare s'appeler (transitive: appeler quelqu’un) to se téléphoner (intransitive: téléphoner à quelqu’un).

  • Nous nous sommes appelés. — We called each other. (For a masculine nous.)
  • Nous nous sommes téléphoné. — We called each other. (For both genders of nous.)

Using the PC

Translating the past tense can be difficult because the English simple past (preterit) overlaps the French passé composé and imparfait (taught later in the “Past Imperfect” unit). The PC can translate to the preterit when it narrates events or states that began and ended in the past. In this usage, the PC often appears with expressions of time or frequency like il y a, which means "ago" when followed by a duration.

  • La fille a mangé il y a cinq minutes. — The girl ate five minutes ago. (A single specific event.)
  • Les enfants ont eu froid hier. — The children were cold yesterday. (A state on a specific date.)
  • Je suis tombé(e) plusieurs fois. — I fell several times. (Multiple specific actions.)
  • Je suis déjà tombé(e). — I already fell. (An event in an undetermined time frame.)

The PC can also translate to the present perfect for actions and states that started in the past and are still true.

  • Il n’a jamais mangé de pâtes. — He has never eaten pasta.
  • Tu as perdu tes clés. – You have lost your keys.

Important: If you find any errors in the Tips and Notes, have questions related to the grammar points above, or would like to discuss the topic in depth, please feel free to comment below. We ask that you keep your comments on topic so that this post stays educational and everyone can benefit from them. Any spam or unrelated comments will be deleted.

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