When to Use The Passé Composé

We can all agree that French is a particular language. Each language has its own set of grammar rules and exceptions, but it seems French is a step ahead of the rest. Its exceptions can be confusing such as the ones regarding the simple past tense. In English, it’s straightforward since we just add the suffix -ed to the main verb, except for irregular verbs. However, French is not that simple.

When talking about the past, the French often use the passé composé. But how and when do you use the passé composé? Many students struggle with it. Why is that? Let’s take a look at this structure and learn how it works. It is widely used in French, therefore, we can’t avoid it. Are you ready? C’est parti!

What Is the Passé Composé?

The passé composé is the most used past tense in the modern French language. Originally, it was the equivalent of the English present perfect tense, but it evolved over the years and is now the equivalent of the simple past tense.

That sounds cool, but what does it mean? We have to go back to our grammar lessons. The simple past expresses a completed action at a definite time in the past, while the present perfect expresses something that happened at an INdefinite time in the past or something that started in the past and continues in the present.

In the case of the passé composé, we use it to talk about a completed action in the past (simple past). While French does have the passé simple, it’s now rarely used. If anything, it’s only used in literature, but other than that, everyone uses the passé composé. That’s why even most teachers don’t bother to teach the passé simple.

How Do We Form the Passé Composé?

To form this structure, we have to use an auxiliary + the main verb. Here’s the funny part. We have two auxiliaries: avoir and être. They are the equivalents of the verbs (to) have and (to) be.

Look at the following examples:

J’ai mangé de la pizza hier.I ate pizza yesterday.
Tu es allé au Canada?Did you go to Canada?
Elle a acheté une nouvelle robe.She bought a new dress.

As you can see, we have to conjugate the auxiliary avoir/être in the simple present tense and then use the past participle of the main verb.

Therefore, we have:

J’aiJe suis
Tu asTu es
Il/Elle/On aIl/Elle/On est
Vous avezVous êtes
Nous avonsNous sommes
Ils/Elles ontIls/Elles sont

For the past participle, you will need to memorize the verb conjugations. Luckily, there are a few rules that can help you. Check out this article to learn the past participle of 50 common verbs.

Avoir or Être?

And here’s where many French students struggle. How do we know which auxiliary we have to use to form the passé composé? I’m glad you asked.

The good news is we use avoir in most cases. However, we use être in the following cases:

  • Verbs of motion/movement.
  • Reflexive verbs.


Je suis arrivé à Paris hier soir.I arrived in Paris last night.
Il s’est réveillé à 5 heures.He woke up at 5.

Common verbs we use with être:

  • aller= to go
  • venir=to come
  • arriver=to arrive
  • entrer=to enter
  • rentrer=to come home
  • sortir=to go out
  • partir=to leave
  • monter=to go up
  • descendre=to go down
  • naître=to be born
  • mourir=to die
  • rester=to stay
  • passer=to pass
  • tomber=to fall down
  • retourner=to return
  • revenir=to come back

Verb Agreement

To further complicate matters, the past participle has to agree in number and gender with either the subject or object of the sentence in some cases.

When using avoir, the past participle has to agree with the direct object when the direct object precedes the verb.


J’ai vu ma soeur –> Je l’ai vue. (I saw my sister –> I saw her).

Il a acheté des billets chers –> Les billets qu’il a achetés sont chers. (He bought expensive tickets –> The tickets he bought are expensive).

In the first example, we have to add -e to the verb because it modifies soeur (a feminine noun). In the second example, the verb modifies a plural masculine noun (billets), so we have to add -s.

When using être, the past participle has to agree with the subject.’


Je suis allé au restaurant and Je suis allée au restaurant (I went to the restaurant) are both correct, but the first option can only be said by a man, while the second one by a woman.

Elle est restée chez elle (She stayed home).

Generally, the past participle also has to agree with the subject in the case of reflexive verbs.


Il s’est levé à 6 heures –> Elle s’est levée à 6 heures (He/She got up at 6).

Ils se sont couchés tard –> Elles se sont couchées tard (They went to bed late).

To make the past participle agree with feminine subjects/objects, we add -e or -es to it. In the case of masculine subjects/objects, we just add -s to make it plural.

Negative Sentences

How do we form negative sentences with the passé composé? As we saw in another post, the most common way of expressing negation in French is by using ne + pas. The passé composé is no different. The only thing we have to be careful with is where we place them in the sentence.

When expressing negation in the past, ne precedes avoir/être, and then immediately we place pas. Therefore, the structure is ne + auxiliary verb + pas + past participle.

Je ne suis pas allé à l’école (I didn’t go to school).

Il n‘a pas mangé de pizza (He didn’t eat pizza).

Elle n‘est pas née au Brésil (She wasn’t born in Brazil).


As you can see, the passé composé is complicated. Not only do we have to determine which auxiliary to use, but we also have to memorize past participles and make sure they agree with the subject or object of a sentence.

It takes practice just like other structures. I know the passé composé not may make sense, but trying to understand why it’s like that will only frustrate you. It’s better to focus on how it works and practice it as much as possible.

I hope you found this useful. Let me know your impressions below. Au revoir, les amis!

When to use the passe compose


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4 thoughts on “When to Use The Passé Composé”

  1. This: 
    Je suis
    Tu es
    Il/Elle/On est
    Vous êtes
    Nous sommes
    Ils/Elles sont

    Brings me back to high school and my lousy grades in French. Thanks a lot for that. Other than it’s a well written and informative article about speaking in the past tense in the French language today. I admit that I had to read some parts a few times just to ensure that I understood, this has nothing to do with your writing style and everything to do with my brain slowing down due to the academic nature of the topic. I have started French on Rosetta stone 10 times and never made it past lesson one, nuff said.

    • Hi, J.G.,

      Back to basics, right? 

      This is not an easy topic. Even advanced speakers make mistakes now and then.

      Sorry to hear about your struggles. Have you considered taking private classes with a teacher? You can find one online. They offer different prices. Check out this article. Studying with a teacher makes you accountable for your learning and there’s no substitute to it.

      You can also join conversation groups in your area or look for online language partners. You can try Tandem and Conversation Exchange. They’re highly effective.

      Let me know if you have any more questions. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Hello there! Thank you very much for sharing this write up. It is highly Educative, informative and also entertaining. It’s making me remember my high school days when we were taught French. Brings back old memories. The passé composè is indeed the most used French tense but some people do not really know how and when to use it. Thanks for schooling us and teaching us how to use. Bonjour

    • Hi, Sophie,

      Your comment is much appreciated. Feel free to check out my other posts to learn more about all things French. I write about different topics, not just grammar.

      Thanks for commenting.


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