Easy Learning French

The perfect tense - Easy Learning Grammar French

What is the perfect tense?
The perfect is one of the verb tenses used to talk about the past, especially about actions that took place and were completed in the past.

1 Using the perfect tense

  • You can often recognize a perfect tense in English by a form like I gave,
    I have finished.
  • I gave her my phone number.
  • I have finished my soup.
TipThe perfect tense is the tense you will need most to talk about things that have happened or were true in the past. It is used to talk about actions that took place and WERE COMPLETED in the past.
Use the imperfect tense for regular events and in most descriptions.

2 Forming the perfect tense

  • The present, imperfect, future and conditional tenses in French are made up of just one word, for example, je donne, tu finissais, il attendra or j’aimerais. The perfect tense has TWO parts to it:
  • the present tense of the verb avoir (meaning to have) or être (meaning to be)
  • a part of the main verb called the past participle, like given, finished and done in English
  • In other words, the perfect tense in French is like the form I have done in English.

3 Forming the past participle

  • To form the past participle of regular verbs, you use the infinitive of the verb:
  • For -er verbs, you replace the -er at the end of the infinitive with é.
InfinitiveTake off -erAdd
donner (to give)donn-donné
tomber (to fall)tomb-tombé
  • For -ir verbs, you replace the -ir at the end of the infinitive with -i.
InfinitiveTake off -irAdd -i
finir (to finish)fin-fini
partir (to leave, to go)part-parti
  • For -re verbs, you replace the -re at the end of the infinitive with -u.
InfinitiveTake off -reAdd -u
attendre (to wait)attend-attendu
descendre (to go down, to come down, to get off)descend-descendu

4 Verbs that form their perfect tense with avoir

  • Most verbs form their perfect tense with avoir, for example donner:
PronounavoirPast participleMeaning
j’aidonnéI gave
I have given
tuasdonnéyou gave
you have given
il
elle
on
adonnéhe/she/it/one gave
he/she/it/one has given
nousavonsdonnéwe gave
we have given
vousavezdonnéyou gave
you have given
ils
elles
ontdonnéthey gave
they have given
Elle a donné son numéro de téléphone à Claude.She gave Claude her phone number.
Il a acheté un ordinateur.He’s bought a computer.
Je n’ai pas regardé la télé hier.I didn’t watch TV yesterday.
Tipje changes to j’ in front of a word starting with a vowel, most words starting with h, and the French word y.
  • The perfect tense of -ir verbs like finir is formed in the same way, except for the past participle: j’ai fini, tu as fini and so on.
  • The perfect tense of -re verbs like attendre is formed in the same way, except for the past participle: j’ai attendu, tu as attendu and so on.

5 avoir or être?

  • MOST verbs form their perfect tense with avoir; these include donner as shown on The perfect tense.
  • There are two main groups of verbs which form their perfect tense with être instead of avoir:
  • all reflexive verbs
  • a group of verbs that are mainly used to talk about movement or a change of some kind, including these ones:
allerto go
venirto come
arriverto arrive, to happen
partirto leave, to go
descendreto go down, to come down, to get off
monterto go up, to come up
entrerto go in, to come in
sortirto go out, to come out
mourirto die
naîtreto be born
devenirto become
resterto stay
tomberto fall
Je suis allé au match de football hier.I went to the football match yesterday.
Il est sorti acheter un journal.He’s gone out to buy a newspaper.
Vous êtes descendu à quelle station?Which station did you get off at?
Grammar Extra!Some of the verbs on the previous page take avoir when they are used with a direct object, for example:
descendre quelque choseto get something down, to bring something down, to take something down
monter quelque choseto go up something, to come up something
sortir quelque choseto take something out
Est-ce que tu as descendu les bagages?Did you bring the bags down?
Elle a monté les escaliers.She went up the stairs.
Elle a sorti son porte-monnaie de son sac.She took her purse out of her handbag.

6 Verbs that form their perfect tense with être

  • When a verb takes être, the past participle ALWAYS agrees with the subject of the verb; that is, the endings change in the feminine and plural forms.
 Masculine endingsExamplesFeminine endingsExamples
Singular-tombé
parti
descendu
-etombée
partie
descendue
Plural-stombés
partis
descendus
-estombées
parties
descendues
Est-ce ton frère est allé à l’étranger?Did your brother go abroad?
Elle est venue avec nous.She came with us.
Ils sont partis à six heures.They left at six o’clock.
Mes cousines sont arrivées hier.My cousins arrived yesterday. (The cousins are female.)
  • Here are the perfect tense forms of tomber in full:
PronounavoirPast participleMeaning
jesuistombé (masculine)
tombée (feminine)
I fell/I have fallen
tuestombé (masculine)
tombée (feminine)
you fell/you have fallen
ilesttombéhe/it fell,
he/it has fallen
elleesttombéeshe/it fell, she/it has fallen
onesttombé (singular)
tombés (masculine plural)
tombées (feminine plural)
one fell/one has fallen,
we fell/we have fallen
noussommestombés (masculine)
tombées (feminine)
we fell/we have fallen
vousêtestombé (masculine singular)
tombée (feminine singular)
tombés (masculine plural)
tombées (feminine plural)
you fell/you have fallen
ilssonttombésthey fell/they have fallen
ellessonttombéesthey fell/they have fallen
Grammar Extra!When on means we, the past participle can agree with the subject of the sentence, but it is optional.
On est arrivés en retard.We arrived late. (masculine)
On est rentrées toutes les deux à la même heure.We both came in at the same time. (feminine)
  • The perfect tense of -ir verbs like partir is formed in the same way, except for the past participle: je suis parti(e), tu es parti(e) and so on.
  • The perfect tense of -re verbs like descendre is formed in the same way, except for the past participle: je suis descendu(e), tu es descendu(e) and so on.
Grammar Extra!When a verb takes avoir, the past participle usually stays in the masculine singular form, as shown in the table for donner, and does not change for the feminine or plural forms.
Il a fini sa dissertation.He’s finished his essay.
Elles ont fini leur dissertation.They’ve finished their essay.
In one particular case, however, the past participle of verbs with avoir does change in the feminine and plural forms. In the sentences above, dissertation is the direct object of the verb finir. When the direct object comes AFTER the verb, as it does in the examples above, then the past participle doesn’t change. If the direct object comes BEFORE the verb, however, the past participle has to change to agree with that direct object.
la dissertation qu’il a finie hierthe essay that he finished yesterday
la dissertation qu’elles ont finie hierthe essay that they finished yesterday
Since object pronouns usually come BEFORE the verb, the past participle changes to agree with the pronoun.
Il a bu son thé? – Oui, il l’a bu.Did he drink his tea? – Yes, he’s drunk it.
Il a bu sa limonade? – Oui, il l’a bue.Did he drink his lemonade? – Yes, he’s drunk it.
TipRemember that with verbs taking être, it is the subject of the verb that tells you what ending to add to the past participle. Compare this with the rule for verbs taking avoir that have a direct object; in their case, it is the direct object coming before the verb that tells you what ending to add to the past participle.

7 The perfect tense of reflexive verbs

  • Here is the perfect tense of the reflexive verb se laver (meaning to wash (oneself), to have a wash, to get washed) in full. Remember that all reflexive verbs take être, and so the past participle of reflexive verbs usually agrees with the subject of the sentence.
Subject pronounReflexive pronounPresent tense of êtrePast participleMeaning
jemesuislavé (masculine)
lavée (feminine)
I washed myself
tut’eslavé (masculine)
lavée (feminine)
you washed
yourself
ils’estlavéhe washed himself
one washed oneself
elles’estlavéeshe washed herself
ons’estlavé (singular)
lavés
(masculine plural)
lavées
(feminine plural)
one washed oneself
we washed
ourselves
nousnoussommeslavés (masculine)
lavées (feminine)
we washed
ourselves
vousvousêteslavé
(masculine singular)
lavée
(feminine singular)
lavés
(masculine plural)
lavées
(feminine plural)
you washed
yourself (singular)
you washed
yourselves (plural)
ilssesontlavésthey washed
themselves
ellessesontlavéesthey washed
themselves
TipWhen on means we, the past participle can agree with the subject
of the sentence, but it is optional.
On s’est lavées l’une après l’autre.We washed ourselves one after the other. (feminine)
Grammar Extra!The past participle of reflexive verbs DOES NOT change if the direct object (la jambe in the example below) FOLLOWS the verb.
Elle s’est cassé la jambe.She’s broken her leg.

8 Irregular verbs in the perfect tense

  • Some past participles are irregular. There aren’t too many, so try to learn them.
avoir (meaning to have)eu
devoir (meaning to have to, must)
dire (meaning to say, to tell)dit
être (meaning to be)été
faire (meaning to do, to make)fait
mettre (meaning to put)mis
pouvoir (meaning to be able to, can)pu
prendre (meaning to take)pris
savoir (meaning to know)su
tenir (meaning to hold)tenu
venir (meaning to come)venu
voir (meaning to see)vu
vouloir (meaning to want)voulu
  • il pleut becomes il a plu (it rained).
  • il faut becomes il a fallu (it was necessary).
Key points
  • The perfect tense describes things that happened and were completed in the past. It is not used for things that happened regularly or in descriptions.
  • The perfect tense is formed with the present tense of avoir or être and a past participle.
  • Most verbs take avoir in the perfect tense. All reflexive verbs and a small group of verbs referring to movement or change take être.
  • The past participle ends in for -er verbs, in -i for -ir verbs, and in -u for -re verbs.
  • With verbs that take avoir, the past participle does not usually change. With verbs that take être, including reflexive verbs, the past participle changes in the feminine and plural.

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