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Today's lesson: the passé composé.

What is the passé composé?

Very simple: It's a verb conjugation used for the past tense in French. (Okay? No biggie, right?)

(I see a few brains that haven't been powered up yet. The switch should be just behind your right ear.)

For instance, if I want to write "I have eaten" in French, I could use this so-called passé composé to write, J'ai mangé. If I wanted to write "I have talked," I'd write, J'ai parlé. If I wanted to write "I have sung," I would write, J'ai chanté.

You see what's going on here? I'm using the verb avoir followed by the past participle of my main verb.

Screeeech! Slam on the brakes, class. Let's back up a minute. Now, students, dig: Every French verb has a past participle. Just look in your verb conjugation tables and you'll find them, okay? The thing about these past participles is this: You usually can't just use the suckers by themselves in a sentence, all right? (Oh, no!) You have to precede them with the verb avoir. (You sometimes also precede them with the verb être, but we'll get to that in a minute.)

So "I have eaten" becomes J'ai mangé (using the verb avoir followed by mangé, which is the past participle of the verb manger)
Likewise, "I have talked" becomes J'ai parlé (using the verb avoir followed by parlé, which is the past participle of the verb parler)
And "I have sung" becomes J'ai chanté (using the verb avoir followed by chanté, which is the past participle of the verb chanter)

And that, in a Professor Q nutshell, is how you form the passé composé in French.


But watch out! There are some past participles that must be preceded by the verb être in place of the verb avoir. (Crank your brains up to full power now: this is the toughest part.)

Suppose I wanted to write, "I have fallen" in French. According to the rules above, I'd probably write J'ai tombé -- ah, but I would be wrong! Because guess what: the past participle tombé must be preceded by the verb être! So the passé composé for "I have fallen" would actually be Je suis tombé.

Better yet, look at the sentence with which I began today's class: Je suis rentré ! ("I'm back!") I might be tempted to write J'ai rentré but I would be flat-out wrong! Why? Because the past participle in this case must be preceded by être. So the passé composé for "I'm back" would actually be Je suis rentré (just like I wrote up above, so there! :)


(Relax, we'll be "powering down" our brains in a minute. Indeed, I'm afraid there may already be some rolling blackouts in the back of the class! :)

All that remains now is for you to learn which past participles take the verb être and which take the verb avoir. I'll give you a hint, though: most of the ones we'll be using take avoir, okay? However, a few basic ones do take être, like tombé (from the verb tomber), rentré (from rentrer), allé (from aller), venu (from venir). (Actually, some verbs can use either être or avoir, depending on what you want the sentence to mean -- but let's save that thought for a future class, shall we? All right, then :)

Screeech! Brakes on again because we're done. If I load you guys up with just one more fact, you might burst! (And the school janitor would never forgive me!)

But before you reach for that switch behind your right ear, I have one final thing to say. When you use the verb être in the passé composé, your past participle must "agree" with your subject.

Example: You know how I wrote Je suis rentré to say "I have returned" (or "I'm back")? Well, suppose you were a female writing the same sentence. As sexist as it may sound, you have to write it differently: You females would write: Je suis rentrée for "I have returned" (or "I'm back"). The additional "e" tells us that the subject of the sentence is female. Or better yet, suppose the subject of your sentence is a whole group of females: You would write Elles sont rentrées. (See? We conjugate être as sont and add an "es" to indicate feminine plural.)

All right, power down, everyone! Give those brains a well-deserved rest!

(You know what I recommend? Go back and reread this lesson tomorrow when your brain has had time to recharge: it will reinforce what we've learned today. Fair enough?)

Now, I'll just get my axe -- er, I mean my briefcase -- and boogie. That's right, I'll leave just like I came in, but this time I'll shout:

I'm gone!!!!!!

(What? Well, actually, I could translate that as Je suis parti or on y va or à bientôt, but since I've already overloaded your poor brains with French, I'll just say: I'm gone!!!!!)

Here's a small chart to help you guys form the passé composé with a few basic French verbs:


aimer (to love): past participle aimé preceded by avoir: J'ai aimé, tu as aimé
(to go): past participle allé preceded by être: Je suis allé, tu es allé
(to sing): past participle chanté preceded by avoir: J'ai chanté, tu as chanté
(to live, reside): past participle habité preceded by avoir: J'ai habité, tu as habité
(to return): past participle rentré preceded by être: Je suis rentré, tu es rentré
(to solve): past participle résolu preceded by avoir: J'ai résolu, tu as résolu
venir (to come): past participle venu preceded by être: Je suis venu, tu es venu

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Last modified: May 17, 2001