The perfect tense is a compound tense comprised of the present tense of the auxiliary verb avoir ou être followed by the past participle of the relevant verb.
e.g. Je suis né il y a seize ans, which means, I was born 16 years ago.
The Past Participle
Knowing the past participle is essential when using the perfect tense. The past participle follows the following pattern for regular verbs:
Each irregular verb takes on a particular past participle which must be learnt. A non-exhaustive list of the past participle of common irregular verbs is provided here.
The Auxiliary Verb (AVOIR/ETRE)
Each verb in French takes one of the two auxiliary verbs, avoir and être in the perfect tense.
Transitive verbs (i.e. capable of being followed by a direct object) take the former avoir. The vast majority of French verbs fall in this category.
A minority of verbs therefore takes the present tense of être in the perfect tense and can be subdivided into:
- ‘Motion’ verbs
aller (to go), arriver (to arrive), devenir (to become), entrer (to enter), mourir (to die), nâitre (to born), partir (to leave), rester (to remain), retourner (t o return), tomber (to fall), venir (to come)
- Reflexive verbs
All reflexive verbs (preceded by se) take the auxiliary être.
e.g. se lever
Je me suis levé tôt ce matin, which means, I got up early this morning.
The following verbs, however, can be used to indicate motion and are also capable of transitive use. These verbs will take avoir when followed by a direct object and être when indicating motion.
-Nous sommes descendus* ensemble, which means, We went down together.
-Nous avons descendu les valises, which means, We brought down the suitcase.
-Elle déjà est montée*, which means, She already went up.
-Elle a monté la tente, which means, She set up the tent.
-Le personnage est passé de Dr. Jeckell à M. Hyde , which means, The character went from Dr. Jeckell to Mr. Hyde.
-Le personnage a passé beaucoup de temps sur la scène, which means, The character has spent much time on stage.
-Tues renté à quelle heure ?, which means, At what time did you come in?
-Tu as rentré ton vélo ?, which means, You’ve returned your bike?
-Elles sont sorties* pour faire la fête , which means, They went out to party.
-Elles ont sorti leurs plus belles robes pour l’occasion, which means, They took out their best dresses for the occasion.
*Nota Bene : When using the auxiliary être, the ending of the verb corresponds to the subject.
Feminine subject (pro)nouns require an extra ‘e’ at the end of the past participle of the verb whilst an ‘s’ is added for plural subject (pro)nouns. (Elle est sortie, Nous sommes sortis, Elles sont sorties)
The perfect tense is used in reference to an action that has been completed in the past (and is no longer going on).
e.g. Usain Bolt a gagné trois médailles d’or aux jeux olympiques de Pékin, which means, Usain Bolt won three gold medals at the Beijing Olympic games.