The Ultimate Guide to the Passé Composé (And The DR MRS P. VANDERTRAMP Rule)

“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.

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?

woman jumping

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:

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.

  1. A helping verb (être or avoir) conjugated in the present tense.
  2. The past participle of the verb you want to conjugate.

Let’s see how this works in practice!

#1 Choose your helping 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

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.

Conjugation

Translation

J’aiI have
Tu asYou have
Il/elle/on aHe/she/it has
Nous avonsWe have
Vous avezYou have
Ils/elles ontThey have

Être and the DR MRS P. VANDERTRAMP acronym

Dr and Mrs Vandertrampp

Être is less common than “avoir” as a helping 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.

  • Devenir
  • Revenir
  • Mourir
  • Retourner
  • Sortir
  • Passer
  • Venir
  • Arriver
  • Naitre
  • Descendre
  • Entrer
  • Rentrer
  • Tomber
  • Rester
  • Aller
  • Monter
  • Partir

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

Conjugation

Translation

Je suisI am
Tu esYou are
Il/elle/on estHe/she/it is
Nous sommesWe are
Vous êtesYou are
Ils/elles sontThey are

#2 Add the past participle

past participle french

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.

Here are a few common irregular verbs to get you started:

Aller

Pronoun

Conjugation

Translation

Jesuis alléI went
Tues alléYou went
Il/elle/onest alléHe/she/it went
Noussommes allésWe went
Vousêtes allésYou went
Ils/ellessont allésThey went

Avoir

Pronoun

Conjugation

Translation

J’ai euI had
Tuas euYou had
Il/elle/ona euHe/she/it had
Nousavons euWe had
Vousavez euYou had
Ils/ellesont euThey had

Être

Pronoun

Conjugation

Translation

J’ai étéI was
Tuas étéYou were
Il/elle/ona étéHe/she/it was
Nousavons étéWe were
Vousavez étéYou were
Ils/ellesont étéThey were

Pouvoir

Pronoun

Conjugation

Translation

J’ai puI could
Tuas puYou could
Il/elle/ona puHe/she/it could
Nousavons puWe could
Vousavez puYou could
Ils/ellesont puThey could

#3 Make the verb agree in number and gender

Crowds of Party People Enjoying a Live Concert

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.

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

44 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to the Passé Composé (And The DR MRS P. VANDERTRAMP Rule)”

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  1. La tarte qu’elle a mangée était excellente
    In the above sentence why should the verb agree with gender when we are using avoir and not etre as the helping verb ?
    the agreement in gender and number is supposedly required only when we are using etre as helping verb, but not when we are using avoir.

    Reply
    • That is false, but often taught when ur just starting out. In many cases we will use avoir as the auxiliary but still need to do the agreement. There are also cases where we use etre, but don’t have an agreement in gender and number.

      Reply
    • Hi,
      It is because
      1) yes you the past participle never agrees with the subject when the helping verb AVOIR is used
      2)when the helping verb AVOIR is used, the past participle CAN AGREE with the DIRECT OBJECT but ONLY when it is placed BEFORE THE VERB

      Hope this helps
      L x

      Reply
  2. Hi sir.
    Please when conjagating the verb “partir” in passé composé, must one add “e” at the end???
    Example: je suis parti(e)

    Reply
  3. Here you can say, she ate what? The tart. Since tart comes before the verb and is female, you need to agree with the gender and add a “e” to mangé.

    Reply
  4. Hello.
    I’m a student and I just started learning about passe compose.
    Since etre is a helping verb, how do you conjugate etre itself into passe compose?

    Reply
  5. When saying ” j’ai eu ” it translates to ” I have had ” which can be shortened to ” I had “. This is used if you were saying ” J’ai eu une pomme ” = I had an apple.

    Reply
  6. Oh, Monsieur Houy,

    One more question, please. I work with my students on the pronunciation of the “eu” in words like “deux,” and “peur,” and “neuf.” I’m an American, so I practice as much as I can and listen to the actors in French movies when they say words with those letters.

    In your lesson today, I’m reminded that the past participle “eu” as in “J’ai eu,” (I had) does not have the sound of peur, deux or neuf.

    I thought perhaps you might be able to shed some light on one of those interesting French mysteries! Merci ?

    Reply
  7. Whenever I use the passé composé it is for me to express something that happened in the past and hasn’t happened again. . . or isn’t likely to reoccur. Whenever I use the imparfait, it’s for me to express an emotion (which can change minute by minute) or an action that continues to the present-day. If we listened better to people when they spoke, we’d be able to understand that their use of p.c. or imp. is personal also–what may be a one-time experience for me may be continual feelings or actions for another person. Language is dynamic and most of the time not static.

    Reply
  8. How do I know when an verb that ends with “-ir” should change to either “-i”, “-u”, “-ert”, or “-is”. I don’t see any patterns to this so it is really hard for me to understand and learn. Is there any particular rules to this? Not just the “-ir” verbs but all the other verbs as well.

    Reply
    • : for ir ending verbs we remove ir amd put a i
      : for er ending verbs we remove er and put è
      :for re ending verbs we remove re and put u
      There are some exceptions in each case too

      Reply
    • there isn’t any pattern to this. there are exceptions in each case but most frequently the rule followed goes like:
      ir = remove r and add i
      re= remove re and add u
      er= remove er and add e (with accent)

      Reply
    • For etre verbs, so mrs van der tramp. you just have to make the verb agree with the subject. for feminine it is an extra e, for masculine plural it is an extra s, for feminine plural it is an es.
      for example: she went= elle est allee
      they went (m)= ils sont alles
      they went (f)= elles sont allees

      Reply
    • Hey gaby, i have a test on this tmr lol. Studying late at night rn. Anyways:
      If the subject is plural –> add “s” to end of verb.
      Subject is female –> add “e” to end of verb.
      Subject is both plural AND female, add “es”.
      Hope this helps!
      btw this article will hopefully let me ace tmr’s test.
      >.<

      Reply
    • well its really simple , you add e if the subject is female , and you add s if the subject is plural , and es if the subject is plural and female at the same time . so its all about the subject here ,

      for example : la tarte qu’elle mangée etait excellente
      tarte is the subject and its female so you add e to mangé,,
      translation : the tart she ate was excellent

      i hope it was helpful.

      Reply
  9. Hi!

    I was wondering what the rule is about adding the two s’s to the conjugation. I’m having a lot of trouble understanding it. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  10. Hi how do you know whether to use le passe compose or l’imparfait… As in, what is the difference between these two? Thanks

    Reply
    • passe compose is used for quick actions or occurances that happened in the past. Imparfait is for things that happened over a long period of time or was habitual in the past.
      That’s why we use imparfait for past ages (because you were a certain age for a full year): “quand j’avais 15 ans.”

      Reply
  11. It doesn’t seem as though you’ve mentioned that some verbs ending in aitre like naître have unusual past participles like né, née.

    Reply
  12. You don’t need to know the passé simple? Nonsense. What if you want to read a book in French?

    That’s like saying you don’t need to know the subjonctif.

    Reply
    • You are right, I should have given more context. What I meant is that most French learners don’t need to learn the passé composé because their only goal is to communicate with locals.

      I completely agree that it’s a useful tense to know to read books. I actually updated the article to reflect that :).

      Reply
  13. Im so excited to learn any of the french lessons… but sometimes im just feeling confused of them… and i couldnt even ask anyone about it… i have completely understood even after reading such a very helpful article… i didnt really understand when to add the ” e ” after le passé composé which is using ” Avoir ” as the helping verbs… and now i already understood tho..merci beaucoup pour votre aide monsier Ben… je l’apprecie beaucoup :))

    Reply
  14. This is an important lesson for people. I feel as though I always know what I want to say, but can’t because I haven’t mastered the passé composé.

    Reply

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