The Perfect Tense
The perfect tense – also known as the passé composé – is used to talk about actions in the past. Sometimes it can be a little confusing, as it is the equivalent of more than one past tense in English: it is used to translate ‘have/has done…’ (present perfect tense) as well as the simple past tense. For example, ‘j’ai fini’ can mean I have finished, I finished or I did finish.
The perfect tense is what we call a compound tense, meaning that it is made up of more than one word: the present tense of an auxiliary (helping) verb plus the past participle of the main verb. For most verbs, the auxiliary verb is ‘avoir’ – to have. For some verbs, including all reflexive verbs, the auxiliary verb is ‘être’ – to be. The past participle is formed as follows for the three main groups of regular verbs:
-er verbs: replace the -er with -é, for example regardé (watched), parlé (spoke/spoken), aimé (liked, loved);
-ir verbs: remove the -r ending, for example fini (finished), réussi (succeeded);
-re verbs: replace the -re with -u, for example attendu (waited), vendu (sold).
Some verbs have irregular past participles; these can be found in the ‘Verb of the Week’ section.
As we have already seen, the perfect tense is the equivalent of two different tenses in English, and is therefore frequently used. Here are some examples of the perfect tense used when we would use the present perfect in English, in other words to express ‘have/has done…’.
J’ai presque fini mon travail. – I have almost finished my work.
Tu as déjà vendu ta voiture. – You have already sold your car.
Il a écrit une lettre à ses parents. – He has written a letter to his parents.
Nous avons fait nos devoirs. – We have done our homework.
Vous n’avez jamais attendu longtemps. You have never waited long.
Elles ont parlé de leur problème. – They have talked about their problem.
Here are some similar examples where the auxiliary verb is être. Notice that when être is used, the past participle must agree with the subject: add -e for a feminine subject, and -s for a plural subject.
Je suis déjà sorti. – I have already been out.
Tu t’es lavé les cheveux. – You have washed your hair.
Elle est allée chez le dentiste. – She has been to the dentist.
Nous nous sommes mariés. – We have got married.
Vous êtes venu déjeuné? – Have you come to have lunch?
Ils se sont promenés dans les bois. – They went for a walk in the woods.
The next set of examples show that the perfect tense is used in French when the simple past tense would be used in English:
J’ai vu ce film hier. – I saw this film yesterday.
Tu as voulu rester. – You wanted to stay.
Il a pu finir tout ce matin. – He was able to finish everything this morning.
Nous avons voyagé en Espagne l’année passée. – We travelled in Spain last year.
Vous avez quitté à six heures. – You left at six o’clock.
Elles ont visité le musée samedi dernier. – They visited the museum last Saturday.
Finally, some similar examples with être as the auxiliary:
Je suis arrivé à dix heures. – I arrived at ten o’clock.
Tu es parti avant lui. – You left before he did.
Elle est rentrée très tard. – She went home very late.
Nous nous sommes levés très tôt. – We got up very early.
Vous vous êtes ennuyé pendant le voyage. – You got bored during the journey.
Ils sont morts avant la guerre. – They died before the war.