Perfect Tense in French

The perfect tense is one of the past tenses in French.

In English it is equivalent to the situation where in English we say “have –ed” or simply “–ed” for example, “I have talked” as well as “I talked”, etc. This one past tense in French is often therefore used to cover what is two past tenses in English. (There is however also the imperfect tense, which we will be covering shortly).

How to form the perfect tense in French

The first stage:-

During the first stage you form the perfect tense is by using the appropriate form of “avoir” (to have) or “être” (to be) as follows:

J’ai = I have

Tu as = You have (informal & singular)

Il/elle a = He/She has

Nous avons = We have

Vous avez = You have (formal &/or plural)

Ils/Elles ont = They have

OR

Je suis = I am

Tu es = You are (informal & singular)

Il/elle est = He/She is

Nous sommes = We are

Vous êtes = You are (formal &/or plural)

Ils/Elles sont = They are

Should I use avoir (to have) or être (to be)?

Generally (but not always!) movement verbs require you to use “être” and non-movement verbs require you to use “avoir”. In addition reflexive verbs require you to use “être” when forming this past tense.

The second stage: During the second stage you work out what the “past participle” is. With regular verbs you do this as follows:-

  • “er” ending verbs replace the “er” with “é” (e.g. jouer becomes joué)

  • “ir” ending verbs replace the “ir” with “i” (e.g. partir becomes parti)

  • “re” ending verbs replace the “re” with “u” (e.g. vendre becomes vendu)

The third stage: During the third stage you put the appropriate part of “avoir” (for non-movement verbs) or “être” (for movement verbs). This is followed by the appropriate past participle. Examples:

Jouer = To play

J’ai joué = I have played/I played

Tu as joué = You have played/You played

(Note: jouer – to play is a non-movement verb, so uses “avoir”)

Aller = To go

Je suis allé = I have gone/I went

Tu es allé = You have gone/You went

(Note: aller – to go is a movement verb, so uses “être”)

BE CAREFUL WITH “ÊTRE” VERBS!

Why? The “past participle” must agree with the gender and number of the people being referred to when you use an ‘être’ verb.

  • Je suis allé = I have gone/I went (“I” is one male)
  • Je suis allée = I have gone/I went (“I” is one female)
  • Nous sommes allés = We have gone/We went (“We” are males or a mix of males & females)
  • Nous sommes allées = We have gone/We went (“We” are all females)

Irregular past participles

Unfortunately there are some irregular past participles which need to be learned. (Just like in English our past participles do not always end in –ed).

These are some of the main irregular “avoir” past participles:-

apprendre (to learn) – appris (learnt)

avoir (to have) – eu (had)

boire (to drink) – bu (drunk)

conduire (to drive) – conduit (driven)

connaître (to recognise/to know) – connu (recognised/knew)

courir (to run) – couru (ran)

devoir (to have to) – dû (had to)

dire (to say/to tell) – dit (said/told)

écrire (to write) – écrit (written)

être (to be) – été (been)

faire (to do/to make) – fait (done/made)

inclure (to include/to enclose) – inclus (included/enclosed)

lire (to read) – lu (read)

mettre (to put) – mis (put)

ouvrir (to open) – ouvert (opened)

pouvoir (to be able to) – pu (been able)

prendre (to take) – pris (taken)

recevoir (to receive) – reçu (received)

rire (to laugh) – ri (laughed)

savoir (to know) – su (known)

tenir (to hold) – tenu (held)

voir (to see) – vu (seen)

vouloir (to want) – voulu (wanted)

vivre (to live) – vécu (lived)

These are some the main irregular “être” past participles:-

devenir (to become) – devenu (became)

mourir (to die) – mort (died)

naître (to be born) – né (born)

venir (to come) – venu (came)

I hope the above post has given you a good understanding of how to form the Perfect Tense in French. Feel free to contact me with any questions or to book French lessons with me. (For more information about my foreign language tuition services, please click here).