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How do you construct the past tense in French?

Unlike in the English past tense, the French have two auxiliary 'helping' verbs - avoir and être, these become before the past participle, e.g. descendu. For example, j'ai mangé, and je suis allé.

So as you can see here, the structure is 'who has done it (subject) + helping verb (auxiliary) + second verb (past participle)'

These auxiliaries are formed as follows

subject      avoir       être      

je              ai            suis

tu              as           es

il/elle/on     a            est

nous          avons      sommes

vous          avez        êtes

ils/elles      ont           sont

Which one of these you use depends on the verb that follows/the past participle, for example a minority of 'moving' verbs mean that you must use être, e.g. je suis... These can be remembered using the anacronym DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP, they are:

Devenir - to become

Revenir - to come back

&

Monter - to climb

Rester - to stay

Sortir - to go out

Venir - to come

Aller - to go

Naître - to be born

Descendre - to descend

Entrer - to enter

Rentrer - to return

Tomber - to fall

Retourner - to return

Arriver - to arrive

Mourir - to die

Partir - to leave

All other verbs require the use of avoir as the helping verb/auxiliary.

The second verb/past participle, e.g. venir, manger, etc, are formed from the infinitive (as you find them in the dictionary) as follows:

Verbs ending in -er (e.g. manger) lose the -er and add an -é; e.g. mangé

Verbs ending in -ir (e.g. partir) lose the -ir and add an -i; e.g. parti

Verbs ending in -re (e.g. rendre) lose the -re and add an -u; e.g. rendu

verbs ending in -oir (e.g. voir) lose the -oir and add an -u; e.g. vu

The final step to forming the past is that only DR & MRS VANDERTRAMP verbs must take an agreement - additional letter(s) - of gender and quantity depending on who has done the verb. For example

gender          singular           plural

masculine     - (no addition)   - s

feminine       - e                   - es

e.g. elle est allée (added e because subject is feminine); Marie et Claire sont descendues (added es because subjects are both feminine; Marc et Tom ont devenus (just the addition of an s because whilst there are two subjects, neither are feminine)

Joseph D. GCSE French tutor, GCSE German tutor, A Level French tutor,...

11 months ago

Answered by Joseph, a GCSE French tutor with MyTutor


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