Past tenses in French

About-France.com  - French grammar online
About-France.com  - the connoisseur's guide to France 
You are  here:   France   › French grammar  ›  Verbs ›  Past tenses

Expressing past time in French

 The preterite and perfect tenses

There are four indicative past tenses in French, plus less common subjunctive forms. This page is concerned with the usage of the different forms of past tenses in French.
The rules governing the use of past tenses are rather different from the rules for using past tenses in English.  For instance, the distinction between I ate and I have eaten, is not at all the same as the distinction between je mangeai and j'ai mangé.

Jump to part 2 for the imperfect (imparfait) and past perfect (plusqueparfait or passé antérieur) tenses. 

1.  The preterite, or past historic  - le préterite ou passé simple

This is the classic literary and formal narrative  past tense, used for describing events in the past. It corresponds to the preterite or simple past tense in English.

► It is particularly used for third-person narrative.
► Except in some fixed expressions, it has more or less fallen out of use in first person / second person conversational French.
► The first and second person plural forms are now considered archaic, and virtually never used, not even in formal written French.

The preterite tense forms of key French verbs
Verb Preterite or simple past tense
être je fus, tu fus, il fut, nous fûmes, vous fûtes, ils furent,
avoir j'eus, tu eus, il eut, nous eûmes, vous eûtes, ils eurent,
pouvoir je pus, tu pus, il put, nous pûmes, vous pûtes, ils purent,
vouloir je voulus, tu voulus, il voulut, nous voulûmes, vous voulûtes, ils voulurent,
devoir je dus, tu dus, il dut, nous dûmes, vous dûtes, ils durent,
(regular verbs in -er)
Je portai, tu portas, il porta, nous portâmes, vous portâtes, ils portèrent
(regular verbs in - ir)
je finis, tu finis, il finit, nous finîmes, vous finîtes, ils finirent
(regular verbs in -re)
je vendis, tu vendis, il vendit, nous vendîmes, vous vendîtes, ils vendirent.
aller j'allai, tu allas, il alla, nous allâmes, ous allâtes  ils allèrent
boire je bus, tu bus, il but, nous bûmes, vous bûtes ils burent
savoir je sus, tu sus, il sut, nous sûmes, vous sûtes, ils sûrent
venir je vins tu vins il vint, nous vinmes, vous vintes, ils vinrent
voir je vis, tu vis, il vit, nous vîmes, vous vîtes, ils virent

He opened the window and looked at the crowd.
 - Il ouvrit la fenêtre et regarda la foule
The president stood up and began to talk
 Le président se leva et se mit à parler.
When he saw the size of the deficit, he was frightened
  Quand il vit la taille du déficit, il eut peur

2.  The "perfect tense"  or composite past - Le temps parfait ou passé composé

This is the tense which is most commonly used for describing events in the past in modern less formal written French, and in modern spoken French. It corresponds to either the preterite or the present perfect tense in English.

► It is particularly used in conversational or oral narrrative.
► It is less used in formal narrative.
► It is formed using the auxiliary "avoir" (or for some verbs "être" - see below ), and the past participle.

Sample verbs:
être: j'ai été, tu as été, il a été, nous avons été, vous avez été, ils ont été,
avoir: j'ai eu, tu as eu etc.
pouvoir: j'ai pu, tu as pu, etc
j'ai dû, tu as dû, etc
vouloir : j'ai voulu, tu as voulu, il a voulu  etc
porter: J'ai porté, tu as porté, etc.
voir: j'ai vu, tu as vu, etc.
dormir: j'ai dormi, tu as dormi, etc.
venir: je suis venu, tu es venu, il est venu, nous sommes venus, ils sont venus
vendre: j'ai vendu, tu as vendu, etc.

► Special cases: Perfect tense with "être"
With common verbs of movement, the perfect tense is conjugated with the auxiliary "être", not "avoir".
These verbs are : aller, venir, monter, descendre, entrer, sortir, arriver, partir, rester, tomber, naître, mourir (and devenir, rentrer, remonter, repartir etc.) except when these verbs are used transitively, i.e.with an object.

The perfect tense is also formed with the auxiliary "être" with all reflexive verbs.

Sample verbs   
Je suis allé, tu es parti, elle est née, ils sont morts, elles sont venues.
Je me suis levé..... elle s'est levée,  nous nous sommes levés, etc.
    (See below for rules on past participle agreement)

General examples:
Yesterday I went to Paris - Hier je suis allé à Paris
We went in and waited - Nous sommes entrés et avons attendu
I've seen it - Je l'ai vu  (note the position of the pronoun object)
I saw him yesterday - Je l'ai vu hier  (note the position of the pronoun object)
I saw the film yesterday - J'ai vu le film hier.
My car broke down on Monday - Ma voiture est tombée en panne lundi
My car has broken down - Ma voiture est tombée en panne
I took the plane to Paris - J'ai pris l'avion jusqu'à Paris.

Agreement of the past participle

There are two different situations, depending on whether the perfect tense is formed with avoir or with être.

a) For verbs conjugated with avoir, i.e. most verbs, the past participle agrees in number and gender with a direct object if this comes before the participle.
Note the particular case of relative clauses, where the object pronoun que assumes the properties of number and gender of the noun that it refers to.
Comparative examples:
   I saw my sister in the supermarket - J'ai vu ma soeur au supermarché.
   I saw her in the supermarket - Je l'ai vue au supermarché.
It is particularly important to remember this rule in the case of relative clauses
   The guy (whom) I saw was really cool. Le type que j'ai vu était très cool.
   The girls (whom) I saw were really busy. Les filles que j'ai vues était très occupées.

b) When a verb is conjugated with être, the past participle always agrees in number and gender with the subject.
He arrived yesterday - Il est arrivé hier.
We went in and waited - Nous sommes entrés et avons attendu
Charlotte was born last Sunday -  Charlotte est e dimanche dernier
The girls have already left - Les filles sont déjà parties

About-France.com  Online French Grammar :  Copyright © About-France.com 2003 - 2021

Return to About-France home page          Full site index        Contact  
Essential French words and phrases for travellers   25 essential words and 25 vital phrases

Printer-friendly page

Compare Paris passes
Mont st michel
Mont Saint Michel by night

Hotel search

Studying the grammar of a foreign language is harder for those who  are unfamiliar with the grammar of their own language... Check out the new acclaimed Descriptive Grammar of English from Amazon

Copyright © About-France.com  2007 - 2023

About-France.com does not collect any data from users. Cookies are used only to track anonymous audience statistics and to enable certain essential page functions. To remove this message, click or get more details