French Grammar: Passé Composé – Special Situations

FRNGrammarPasseComposeSpecialSituations

French Grammar: Passé Composé – Special Situations
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French Grammar: Passé Composé – Special Situations
la grammaire française: le passé compose – contextes specialisés

When speaking about the past in English, you choose which past tense to use depending on the context and the meaning you wish to convey. In French sentences, you choose which past tense you use depending only on the meaning you wish to convey.

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When speaking about the past in English, you choose which past tense to use depending on the context and the meaning you wish to convey. In French sentences, you choose which past tense you use depending only on the meaning you wish to convey.

The Passé Composé (Past Tense) is the most common past tense in French.  It is used to express an action or event (or a series of actions or events) completed in the past.  The Passé Composé (Past Tense) is used in the following instances:

1. With completed actions in the past:

J’ai déjà étudié la leçon.
I already studied the lesson.

2. With a series of events or actions completed in the past:

La semaine passée, je suis allé en Floride, j’ai nagé dans l’océan et j’ai beaucoup dormi.
Last week I went to Florida, I swam in the ocean, and I slept a lot.

3. With key words associated with past time (hier, avant-hier, hier soir, une fois, tout à coup, etc…)

Hier soir j’ai dansé avec mon mari.
Last night, I danced with my husband.

The literal translation of “Passé Composé” is “compound past”, and it is called this because the verb form is composed of two parts: (1) the present tense of the auxiliary (or “helper”) verb, and (2) the past participle of the main verb (i.e., the verb that conveys the true meaning).   The past participle is the form of the verb that is equivalent to  -ed  in English.  (For example: played, finished, waited)

For the majority of French verbs, the Passé Composé is formed with the auxiliary (“helper”) verb AVOIR. (See the lessons on Passé Composé with AVOIR to learn more about French verbs that form the Passé Composé with the auxiliary (“helper”) verb avoir.)

All French reflexive verbs form the Passé Composé with the auxiliary (“helper”) verb ÊTRE.  For a detailed explanation of this, refer to the LEAF French Grammar document on Reflexive Verbs.

A handful of non-reflexive French verbs also form the Passé Composé with the auxiliary (“helper”) verb ÊTRE.  The majority of these verbs express motion or a change of place, state, or condition.  In alphabetical order, these verbs include:

ALLER : to go

ARRIVER : to arrive

DESCENDRE : to descend / to go down

DEVENIR : to become

ENTRER : to enter

MONTER : to climb / to go up / to come up

MOURIR : to die

NAÎTRE : to be born

PARTIR : to leave / to go away / to depart

RENTRER : to return / to go in again / to go home

RESTER : to stay / to remain

RETOURNER : to go back / to return

REVENIR : to come back

SORTIR : to leave / to go out / to exit

TOMBER : to fall

VENIR : to come

SPECIAL SITUATIONS:

It is important to note that the following verbs from the above list are conjugated with avoir instead of être when they have a direct object:  DESCENDRE / ENTRER / MONTER / RENTRER / RETOURNER / SORTIR.  Pay attention to the differences in meanings between the sample sentences below.

DESCENDRE:

Nous sommes descendues du train pendant que nos maris ont descendu nos bagages.
We (feminine) got off the train while our husbands took down our luggage.

ENTRER:

Il n’est pas encore entré dans le bureau et donc il n’a pas encore entré les données.
He has not yet entered the office and so he has not yet entered the data.

MONTER:

Les enfants sont montés pour se coucher.  Ils ont montés leurs nounours.
The children went up to go to bed.  They brought up their teddy bears.

RENTRER:

Je suis rentrée vers dix-sept heures et j’ai rentré le courrier.
I (feminine) came home around 5:00pm and I brought in the mail.

RETOURNER:

Quand ils sont retournés des vacances, ils ont retourné les livres à la bibliothèque.
When they got back from vacation, they returned the books to the library.

SORTIR:

Elle est sortie de la maison et elle a sorti les poubelles.
She left the house and she took out the garbage.

The verb PASSER also forms the Passé Composé with être when it expresses movement (e.g., someone passed something).  In most other cases, though, PASSER forms the Passé Composé with avoir (e.g., when it expresses the passing (or spending) of time, the passing of an exam, etc.).

PASSER:

Nous sommes passés par notre sortie, et puis nous avons passé une demi-heure dans un embouteillage.
We passed our exit, and then we spent a half-hour in a traffic jam.

Adapt:

Est-ce que le facteur est déjà passé?
Has the mailman already come by?

Oui, il est passé il y a une heure.
Yes, he came by one hour ago.

La famille est montée à leur chambre d’hôtel?
Did the family go up to their hotel room?

Oui, et le chasseur a monté leurs bagages.
Yes, and the bellhop took up their luggage.

Est-ce que vous êtes sorti du musée?
Did you (formal) leave the museum?

Oui, et j’ai sorti mon parapluie parce qu’il pleuvait.
Yes, and I took out my umbrella because it was raining.

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