|Le Passé Composé
Avez-vous jamais employé le passé composé?
We just did. French has it, and as you can see above, so does English.
In English, one says:
“Have you traveled”? Yes, I have traveled (“yes, I’ve traveled”).
“Avez-vous voyagé?” “Oui, j’ai voyagé”, say the French.
As you can see, the "passé composé" is composed, of two parts.
The first part is the verb “to have”(with exceptions of course, see end.),
the second part is what is called the “participe passé”.
Avoir (to have).
We have seen that the English parallel to the Passé
“ I have traveled” (J’ai voyagé).
In English, however, one tends to say "I traveled".
This is the simple past, and for this simple past in
French you must use either the Passé Composé or the
RULE: If the simple past does not mean
“was……….ing” or “used to………”
(I was looking, I used to look),
use the passé composé:
j’ai cherché partout I looked everywhere
Most descriptions mean “was or were….ing” so the
In some cases, however, it is not so:
The river flowed without a break.
If this is a description (characteristic of the river), you
do not use the passé composé but rather the imparfait.
However the same sentence stating a fact rather than
being a description would take the Passé Composé:
La rivière a coulé sans répit.
2. MENTAL ACTIONS.
With verbs like savoir, penser, croire, vouloir, désirer
the imparfait is usually used.
However, if the mental action is short lived and
definitely over, it’s usually the passé composé.
Je croyais que…(I believed that…imparfait)
Je l’ai cru (I believed him, passé composé).
Je le savais (I knew it, imparfait)
Quand je l’ai su (when I found out, p.c.) .
Je pensais que……(I thought that, imparfait)
J’y ai pensé (I thought of it, passé composé).
You use the passé composé for repetitions only if the
amount of times is clarified.
Je l’ai vu 3 fois. I saw it 3 times
J’ai mangé ici plusieurs fois :
I ate here a several times.
4. AVOIR and ÊTRE (to have and to be)
AVOIR is mostly in the imparfait but can be in the
passé composé if the event is rather well defined in
time and short lived.
J’avais une voiture ( I had a car, imparfait)
J’ai eu un accident. I had an accident.
ÊTRE is almost always in the imparfait.
A rule of thumb is to use the passé composé with être
if you use the “I’ve been” form in English:
I’ve been to her house. J’ai été chez elle.
This can also mean I went to her house as one
can use the passé composé of être to mean "to go":
J’ai été au magasin pour acheter du pain.
I went to the store to buy bread.
With the passé composé,
-You are simply reporting a fact in the past .
-You do not intend to bring the reader to the past but
simply wish to inform him of a situation.
-The passé composé implies a definite time frame even
if it is not mentioned.
-Actions in the passé composé succeed each other
while in the imparfait they tend to happen
With the Passé Composé, the rules that apply to verbs
are applied to the auxiliary, avoir or être.
1.NEGATIVE: Put NE……PAS around the verb.
Here, one puts NE………PAS around avoir.
Je n’ai pas mangé
You will not say “je n’ai mangé pas” just as in English
you will not say “I have eaten not”.
2. PRONOUN BEFORE THE VERB.
The object pronoun goes before avoir.
Je l’ai acheté. I (have) bought it.
As you can see, this is very different from the English
where the pronoun goes not only after “Avoir” but
also after the past participle.
The subject goes after avoir in an inverted question,
just like in English:
Avez-vous mangé? (Have you eaten?)
If you put the subject after the past participle, it would
be akin to saying "Have eaten you?" in english.
One often finds the past construction of one action
occuring with a situation as background:
I was studying when you called.
In French, the background situation (was......ing) would
be in the imparfait and the occurrence in the passé
J'étudiais quand tu as téléphoné.
For a more thorough understanding of the
usage of the passé composé, visit the
This présentation of the
passé composé was prepared by
David Berger. All rights reserved.
All comments, suggestions and
corrections are welcome