French The Past Tense (with être)

Overview

The French irregular verb être, to be, is one of the most important verbs in the French language. Être is not only common because it means "to be", but also because many verbs use être as an auxiliary verb to form compound tenses such as passé composé. The passé composé is a past tense that can be translated as the simple past or the present perfect. For the verb être, it is formed with the auxiliary verb avoir and the past participle été​.

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In Module 3, we learned how to create the past tense with avoir. We use avoir in our formula as the standard auxiliary verb. Review the passé composé formula below.

Subject            +          Auxiliary Verb            +          Past Participle             +          Agreement

In several instances, we use être as the auxiliary verb in the sentence. That means we conjugate être for our subject, then add our past participle AND agreement. Before the lesson starts, review how to conjugate être in A1.1 Module 3.

Just as before, we have four components to our formula.

Subject = Who or what the sentence is talking about. As we know, the subject can be any noun, person’s name, or subject pronoun (Je, Tu, Il, etc…)

Auxiliary Verb = In English, the auxiliary verb is called the “helping verb.” The helping verbs we use in French are either avoir or être. We usually default to avoir, however there are several, specific French verbs that require être to be used. These verbs are called “motion verbs.” They usually depict a physical action that a subject can do. To remember the list of these verbs, beginner learners study “La Maison d’Être” and the acronym, “Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp.” The following video depicts these motion verbs.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=-Y0RMRGDH6U%3Ffeature%3Doembed

Past Participle = Just like in the previous module using avoir with the passé composé, the past participle is the third component of the formula. See below for a review on how to form regular past participles and the green column in the image above to learn the past participles for the most common motion verbs.

-er verbs → -é rester → resté-ir verbs → -i   partir →parti-re verbs-u   descendre → descendu

Agreement: When using avoir as the auxiliary verb in the passé composé formula, we could ignore the “agreement” component for the time being. In all cases using être as the auxiliary verb, however, agreement between the past participle and the subject of the sentence is required. We can make them agree by adding an -e, s, or -es to the end of the past participle depending on whether the subject is feminine singular, plural, or feminine and plural. The masculine singular subjects will automatically agree with the past participle, so nothing else needs to be added. If you’re unsure of whether or not the speaker is male or female, the agreement is added in parentheses (shown below) or you can default to masculine singular.

Examples: The following sentences are conjugated in the passé composé and labeled by color according to the formula above. Pay close attention to the possible forms of agreement.

Je suis allé(e) au centre commercial samedi soir.     I went to the mall on Saturday night..

Tu es entré(e) dans la maison.                                   You entered the house.

Elle est arrivée à 15h.                                                She arrived at 3 o’clock.

Nous sommes monté(e)s les escaliers.                       We climbed the stairs.

Vous êtes venu(e)(s) à l’heure.                                   You came on time.

Ils sont tombés devant la porte.                                  They fell in front of the door.

Notes:

These sentences are examples and can change depending on the subject. For example, if in the last sentence Ils was changed to Elles, then an additional -e would have been added to the past participle to make it tombées.

Note how the agreement in the fifth sentences for Vous has both the –e and -s in parenthesis. This means that any combination of the agreement endings is possible. Remember that Vous êtes can refer to one person (masculine or feminine) or a group of people.

For any subject that is plural and contains all females, you must use the feminine plural agreement –es. However, if the group has a mix of males and females, you default to the masculine plural agreement.

Negation:

As we know, when you want to negate a sentence in the French, you need to place the “ne” and “pas” around the verb. In the past tense, the “ne” and “pas” sandwich the auxiliary verb, as it is the conjugated verb in the sentence. A common mistake among beginners is placing the “ne” and “pas” around the past participle. The past participle is no longer the conjugated verb of the sentence. In this lesson, the “ne” and “pas” sandwich être.

Tu n’es pas entré(e) dans la maison.                                    You did not enter the house.

Nous ne sommes pas monté(e)s les escaliers.                        We did not climb the stairs.

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