What exactly is the past tense?

  • The past tense is sometimes referred to as the Perfect tense in English or the Parfait or Passé composé in French. They mean the same thing.


  • The past tense is used when you want to say that you did something in the past, for example, I went to… (sorry, but there are other tenses that you use for the past too, but try and not think about that just yet!)


  • The Perfect tense is used to talk about that happened or what was true in the past. It refers to actions that were completed.


  • The Perfect tense in French is made up of three parts so it can be a bit tricky:


  • Subject = Je, Tu, Il/Elle/On, Nous, Vous, Ils/Elles


  • Present tense of either the verb avoir or être


  • A part of the main verb called the past participle, for example, I went uses aller = to go. The past participle is allé(e).


  • IMPORTANT: any main verb you are using works either with AVOIR or ETRE (the middle bit) in the present tense. It’s up to you to learn which one to use. There is a rule to follow (see below).

To construct the past tense, here’s a reminder of the present tense


AVOIR                                                                        ETRE

Je                                        ai                                        Je                                       suis

Tu                                       as                                       Tu                                       es

Il/elle/on                           a                                         Il/elle/on                           est

Nous                                  avons                                 Nous                                  sommes

Vous                                   avez                                   Vous                                  êtes

Ils/elles                             ont                                     Ils/elles                             sont

List of verbs that always work with ETRE in the past tense


A lot of them are to do with movement. Any other verb works with AVOIR.


  • ALLER to go
  • ARRIVER to arrive
  • DESCENDRE to go down
  • DEVENIR to become
  • ENTRER to enter
  • MONTER to go up
  • MOURIR to die
  • NAÎTRE to be born
  • PARTIR to leave
  • RENTRER to return home
  • RESTER to stay
  • RETOURNER to return
  • SORTIR to go out
  • TOMBER to fall
  • VENIR to come

Some useful French past participles for the past tense


VERB (F)                    VEBB (UK)                PAST PARTICIPLE

Aller                                  to go                                  allé

Voir                                    to see                                vu

Regarder                          to watch                           regardé

Venir                                  to come                            venu

Let’s put the past tense together


Example 1:


  • I went
  • Subject is I = Je
  • main verb = to go = aller
  • aller is on the list of 15 verbs that work with être in the present tense, therefore, we use je suis
  • past participle of aller = allé
  • = je suis allé(e) = I went *


* When the main verb works with être in the past tense, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject. When the verb works with avoir, you don’t need to worry about it. So here in the example, if the subject is masculine then this is fine. But, if the subject is feminine, you would have to add an extra e.


Example 2:


  • they watched
  • subject is they (plural) – ils/elles
  • main verb = to watch = regarder
  • regarder is not on the 15 verbs that work with être in the present tense so we are using avoir, therefore we use ils/elles ont
  • past participle of regarder = regardé
  • = ils/elles ont regardé*


* There is no need for an agreement on the past participle as the verb regarder works with avoir


Try these: we arrived, I stayed, I ran, they liked, you ate (vous), you drank (tu)


For a glossary of grammar terminology, please click here.


For French for Beginners, please click here.