For a native speaker of English trying to speak in the past in French, it can be tricky to know which form of the past to use in French without prior knowledge. This is because there is no single, one-size-fits-all tense to describe things which happened in the past
In French, there are three forms of the past tense you will come across:
- The perfect tense (le passé composé), describes completed actions in the past
- The imperfect tense (l'imparfait), describes something you were continuously doing in the past, or describes the way things used to be in the past.
- The past historic tense (le passé simple) - is only ever used in literature to describe action in the context of a narrative, and is never spoken, unless you are reading aloud a novel, for example.
The Perfect Tense (Le passé composé)
This is perhaps the simplest of the past tenses, and as a learner of French, this is probably the first one of them which you will learn. Its function is to let you talk about something which happened on one occasion in the past; something that you did which is now completed or finished.
"I ate the apple." is a completed action in the past, because you consumed the apple, and there is no longer an apple there to be eaten; you are no longer eating it and are probably now still picking the bits of skin out of your teeth.
In this way, because the action of eating the apple is now finished, you must use the perfect tense in French to communicate that.
Forming the perfect tense
If you are new to non-present tenses in French, this is where things get a little bit more interesting. In order to form the perfect tense and communicate a completed action, we must make use of two new elements:
- A past participle
- An auxiliary verb
First of all, what is a past participle? In simple terms, this is the part of the phrase which changes the original verb, in this case 'manger' (to eat), from a form which communicates a present tense, to a form which communicates a past meaning.
What is the past participle of 'manger' then?
How a past participle is spelled differs depending on which group of verbs it comes from.
- If a verb ends in '-er', we say that it belongs to the first group of verbs
- If a verb ends in '-ir', we say that it belongs to the second group of verbs
- If a verb ends in '-re', we say that it belongs to the third group of verbs
To write or be able to speak a past participle, we must use the following method:
- Find out what verb group the verb we are changing belongs to (-er,-ir,-re)
- Remove the ending (-er,-ir,-re)
- For '-er' verbs, add [é] in place of the original ending (manger -> mangé)
- For '-ir' verbs, add [i] in place of the original ending (cueillir -> cuelli)
- For '-re' verbs, add [u] in place of the original ending (vendre -> vendu)
In this case, we've picked a rather easy example just for demonstration purposes: 'manger'.
Because it is a verb which ends in '-er', it comes from the first group of verbs, which means we form its past participle like this:
-> manger (original verb)
-> mang(er) (checking the ending of the verb, which is '-er'
-> mang(é) (adding the correct past participle ending)
Okay, so now we have our past participle, 'mangé', but we're not finished just yet. In order to complete our phrase, we need what is called an auxiliary.
Why do we need an auxiliary when we already have a past participle?
In French, tenses do not neatly match those in English. In French, when we want to show that we did something in the past, which is now finished, we must use the perfect tense, unless we are writing a novel (they require a special tense called the 'passé simple' which we will cover another time).
So, with our sentence 'I ate the apple', we are actually saying 'I have eaten the apple' when we use the perfect tense. Saying ‘I have eaten the apple’, you’re actually using the perfect tense in English.
This means that if we omit the auxiliary, we are in effect saying something which sounds completely silly, much like saying 'I eaten the apple'.
As you might have gathered from this previous example, the auxiliary verb we use is 'avoir' (to have) - except for certain verbs which use 'être’, which requires a separate lesson.
So in order to say ‘I have eaten the apple’, we need the first person singular form of ‘avoir’ (je), which leaves us with ‘j’ai’.
So, now we have our auxiliary and past participle, we can now form our completed sentence!
I ate the apple (I have eaten the apple) -> “J’ai mangé la pomme.”
If we want to use different verbs, we need only know which group they are from.
For example, consider these two additional sentences:
- “I picked the apple” becomes “J’ai cueilli la pomme” because ‘cueillir’ belongs to the second group (‘-ir’ group) of verbs, so the ending in the past participle changes from ‘-ir’ to ‘-i’
- “I sold the apple” becomes “J’ai vendu” la pomme” because ‘vendre’ belongs to the third group (‘-re’ group) of verbs, so the ending in the past participle changes from ‘-re’ to ‘u’
If we want to refer to different people (I, you, we, he/she, we, you, they), we need only change the conjugation, that is to say how the verb changes depending on the person it refers to, of the auxiliary. If you are comfortable with using the verb ‘avoir’ with all of the different people and their pronouns, you’re all set!
Note: the following examples ONLY apply if we are using ‘avoir’ as an auxiliary.
- I ate the apple: “J’ai mangé la pomme”
- You ate the apple: “Tu as mangé la pomme”
- He/she ate the apple: “Il/elle a mangé la pomme”
- We ate the apple: “Nous avons mangé la pomme”
- You (all) ate the apple: “Vous avez mangé la pomme”
- They ate the apple: “Ils/elles ont mangé la pomme”
Et voilà! You will hopefully now be able to start forming your own simple sentences using the perfect tense!