“Please don’t use the passé simple tense in your essay.”
This is the first sentence our professor told us, a group of French college students, as we were about to take an exam.
“Most French college students don’t know how to use the passé simple properly”, he went on.
My professor was right. Most French people don’t know how to use the passé simple properly because they rarely need to use it.
This is great news for you as a French learner, because it means you probably don’t need to bother learning this complicated tense.
if your only goal is to communicate with locals, you only need to know two French past tenses: le passé composé and l’imparfait. That’s why these are the tenses we focus on in our conversational French app.
Today’s article will show you when and how to use the passé composé and how the DR MRS P. VANDERTRAMP acronym can help you.
When should you use the passé composé?
The bad news is that French people use several past tenses.
The good news is that le passé composé is the most common tense and that you can already express yourself well if it’s the only French past tense you know.
Le passé composé is the equivalent of:
- The simple past (j’ai fait, I did)
- The present perfect (j’ai fait, I have done)
You use it to highlight the consequences of past actions and to talk about:
- Completed actions.
- Repeated actions.
- Series of actions.
- Conditions in likely situations.
How to conjugate verbs in the passé composé tense
The passé composé is a compound tense, meaning you need two components to conjugate a verb.
- A helping verb (être or avoir) conjugated in the present tense.
- The past participle (participe passé) of the verb you want to conjugate.
Let’s see how this works in practice!
1. Choose your helping verb/auxiliary verb
The first step to conjugating a verb in the passé composé is to find out what helping verb (also called auxiliary verb) it uses: être or avoir.
Avoir (to have) is the most common helping verb.
If you ever find yourself in the middle of a conversation wondering whether to use avoir or être to conjugate in the passé composé, choose avoir. It’s the most common helping verb and is likely to be the one you need.
Once you know the verb you want to conjugate in the passé composé uses “avoir”, you simply need to conjugate avoir in the present tense and add the past participle (participe passé).
Être and the DR MRS P. VANDERTRAMP acronym
Être is less common than “avoir” as an auxiliary verb but a few common French verbs use it when conjugated in the passé composé.
An easy way to remember some of these verbs is to use the Dr and Mrs Vandertramp or Dr Mrs P Vandertramp mnemonics.
Each letter in the sentence Dr and Mrs P Vandertramp represents the beginning of a verb that uses être as a helping verb when conjugated in the passé composé.
Other verbs that use être include:
- All reflexive verbs (verbs that use “se”.)
- Some verbs indicating movement or a change of state.
Once you know the verb you want to conjugate in the passé composé uses être, it’s time to conjugate être in the present tense
2. Add the past participle
Verbs in the passé composé are formed by putting together a helping verb (être or avoir) conjugated in the present tense + a past participle.
Once you know what helping verb to use, all you need to do is add the past participle of the verb you want to conjugate.
The majority of French verbs are regular and forming their past participle is easy.
Simply use the recipe below:
Regular ER verbs => é
Regular IR verbs => i
Regular RE verbs => u
Manger => J’ai mangé
Finir => J’ai fini
Vendre => J’ai vendu
There are also a few irregular verb patterns:
- Faire, dire and other verbs in ire => it
- Connaitre and other verbs in aitre => u
- Venir and other verbs in enir => enu
- Prendre and other verbs in -endre => pris
Some irregular verbs won’t match any of these patterns, if that’s the case, you need to look up the individual past participle conjugation.
#3 Make the verb agree in number and gender
Passé composé agreement of verbs using être as a helping verb
Verbs using être as a helping verb to form their passé composé agree in gender and number with the subject.
- Je suis arrivé(e) => you add a e if the subject if female.
- Ils sont arrivé(s) (you add a “s” is the subject is plural).
- Elles sont arrivé(es) ( you add a e plus a s if the subject is plural and female.)
If the subject is a group of 10 women and 1 man, you are supposed to act as if the entire group was male because French grammar considers that male always wins.
There is, however, a growing number of people who refuse to follow (and even teach) this rule they consider sexist.
Passé composé agreement of verbs using avoir as a helping verb
Verbs using avoir in the passé composé only need to agree with preceding direct objects.
A simple way to know whether a verb has a preceding direct object is to ask what? after the verb.
La tarte qu’elle a mangée était excellente.
The tart she ate was excellent.
Here you can say, she ate what? The tart. Since tart comes before the verb and is female, you need to agree in number and add a “e” to mangé.
If this all sounds complicated don’t worry.
While it takes a while to get used to all these new conjugations, mistakes will rarely prevent you from being understood. In fact, the French regularly make mistakes when they use the passé composé.
Learn to conjugate avoir and être, focus on learning the most common patterns and you will be able to correctly conjugate verbs in the passé composé in the majority of cases.
Want to learn the passé composé in the context of real-life conversations? Give French Together a try!