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French Passé Composé Auxilliary Verbs

written by: Tommy Carlton • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 6/6/2012

There are two parts to the passé composé (past tense) in French: the auxiliary verb and the past participle. The first part you need to learn is the auxiliary verb, which can be either avoir or être depending on the circumstance. Learn when you use each of them with this article.

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    What is the Passé Composé?

    There are several tenses used to represent the past tense in French, and one of the more common ones is the passé composé (compound past). This tense is used to describe single events in the past, things that happened in an instant such as someone speaking, a door slamming, or whether or not you ate breakfast two days ago. This particular tense is made up of two different parts, the auxiliary verb and the past participle. The auxiliary verb can be either avoir or être depending on the main verb, so let's take a look into both situations.

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    Using Avoir

    Avoir is the more common auxiliary verb used for the passé composé. Most verbs use avoir, but before we get into specific situations, let's review the present tense conjugation for the verb:

    avoir

    • j'ai
    • tu as
    • il/elle/on a
    • nous avons
    • vous avez
    • ils/elles ont

    You may notice that these conjugations are for the present tense even though we are talking about the past tense. The reason for this is because the second part of the passé composé, the past participle, makes the verb past tense. For example, once you learn the past participles, you will know that parlé is the past participle for the verb parler (to speak). So, if I want to say I spoke, I would say j'ai parlé. The verb parlé conjugated in the passé composé appears as follows:

    • j'ai parlé
    • tu as parlé
    • il/elle/on a parlé
    • nous avons parlé
    • vous avez parlé
    • ils/elles ont parlé

    Pay attention to the fact that the past participle, parlé, is the same for all of them. The only thing that changes is the conjugation of avoir, and, because it uses the present tense conjugations, you have nothing new to learn! Just know that for most verbs, avoir is the auxiliary in the passé composé, and you will be ok.

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    Using Être

    The other auxiliary verb used for the passé composé is the verb être (to be). Before continuing, let's review the present tense conjugation for être:

    être

    • je suis
    • tu es
    • il/elle/on est
    • nous sommes
    • vous êtes
    • ils/elles sont

    It is only used for a small number of verbs, and they fall into two categories: reflexive verbs and movement verbs. Reflexive verbs are verbs that, in their infinitive form, are preceded by a se, for example: se demander (to wonder) and se reveiller (to wake up). The other category, movement verbs, is a bit more vague as not all verbs related to movement fall into it. All of the verbs that fit in this category are there for historical reasons tracing back to Latin, and there are seventeen of them as follows:

    • aller (to go)
    • arriver (to arrive)
    • descendre (to go down)
    • devenir (to become)
    • entrer (to enter)
    • monter (to climb/go up)
    • mourir (to die)
    • naître (to be born)
    • partir (to leave)
    • passer (to pass/take)
    • rentrer (to re-enter)
    • rester (to stay)
    • retourner (to return)
    • revenir (to come back)
    • sortir (to go out of)
    • tomber (to fall)
    • venir (to come)

    Any time you conjugate one of those verbs in the passé composé in French, you will use the verb être as your auxiliary verb just like with the reflexive verbs. For example, the verb partir—its past participle is parti— in the passé composé conjugates as follows:

    • je suis parti(e)
    • tu es parti(e)
    • il/elle/on est parti(e)
    • nous sommes parti(e)s
    • vous êtes parti(e)(s)
    • ils/elles sont parti(e)s

    (For the time being, just know that some past participles have an extra (e) or (s) at the end depending on the subject and that they act like adjectives. When we go into past participles specifically, we will cover the details of those rules.)

    You can see that just like avoir, the main difference is the conjugation of the auxiliary verb être, which you now know when to use. And, just like with avoir, the conjugations for être are the present tense forms, so you have nothing new to learn!