Learn about the Compound Tense in French

What is the Compound Tense?

The Compound Tense in French, is a formation of an auxillary verb and a past participle of another verb. All of the following examples utilize the compound tense:

  • ‘I have been,’
  • ‘I was running,’
  • ‘I had run,’

A common tense, used most extensively in spoken situations, the compound tense in French is based largely on the conjugation of the verbs avoir or être.. The beauty of the compound tense is that if you can, for instance, conjugate ‘avoir’ – I have, you have, we have, etc., then all that remains is to add the past participle of the second verb and voilà, you have the past tense which is most commonly used in conversation.

So "I ate", or "I have eaten" is formed with the French ‘I have’ and ‘eaten’. The verb avoir is conjugated into ‘I have’, j’ai, where the verb ‘to eat’, manger, turns into its past participle, ‘eaten’, which in French, is mangé.

j'ai mangé = I have eaten
There you have the French Compound Tense!

The other beauty of the French compound tense is that the past participle sounds like the infinitive of the 'er' verbs.

In other words, mangé sounds like manger, which is the infinitive. They are spelt differently but sound the same.

So with this structure you can easily work out the past tenses of hundreds of regular French verbs.

The French verb avoir conjugated is:

Avoir to form the Compound Tense in French
j'ai I havenous avons we have
tu as you have vous avez you have
il a he hasils ont they have

Être and Avoir

As mentioned before,compound tenses such as:

  • ‘I have stolen,’
  • ‘I was stealing,’
  • ‘I had stolen,’

are made by using the conjugations of the verbs avoir or être.

Compound Tense and 'Avoir'

Most verbs form their compound tense with avoir as the auxiliary verb.

Compound Tense and 'Être'

However, two groups form these tenses with être.

  • être with Reflexive Verbs.
  • être with Verbs of Motion.

The French Verb être conjugated. 'to be' in French

être to form the Compound Tense in French
je suis I amnous sommes we are
tu es you arevous êtes you are
il est he isils sont they are

Être with Reflexive Verbs (se lever, se demander…)

Je me suis levé tôt.
I got up early.

Elle s’est cassée la jambe.
She broke her leg.

Ils se sont couchés tard.
They went to bed late.

Être with motion verbs (expressing some kind of motion or change of state, used without a direct object)

Examples of the Compound Tense in French
Arriver, to arriveElle est arrivée
Partir, to leaveElle est partie
Entrer, to enter Elle est entrée
Sortir, to go outElle est sortie
Aller, to goElle est allée
Venir, to comeElle est venue
Monter, to go upElle est montée
Descendre, to go downElle est descendue
Mourir, to dieElle est morte
Naître, to be bornElle est née
Rester, to stayElle est restée
Tomber, to fallElle est tombée
Retourner, to returnElle est retournée

Avoir with verbs used transitively

Il est descendu.
He went down.

Il a descendu les escaliers.
He went down the stairs

Il est sorti.
He went out.

Il a sorti la poubelle.
He took the bin out.

Il est retourné à Paris.
He returned to Paris.

Il a retourné sa feuille.
He turned his sheet upside down.

Avoir with verbs of motion or change of state other than those listed above used transitively or intransitively.

Tu as déménagé.
You moved.

Tu as déménagé les meubles.
You moved the furniture.

Tu as déménagé à Bordeaux.
You moved to Bordeaux.

Now you've learned how to form the compound tense in French. Care to try some other lessons?

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Compound Tense in French
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