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What are compound tenses in French?

By: Mango Languages Mon May 13 2024

A French compound tense is a tense or a mood that is formed using two elements: an auxiliary verb and a past participle. One example of a compound tense is the French passé composé. Take a look:

Nous avons déjà mangé.

We already ate.

There are also other compound tenses that use the same structure, such as the French future perfect.

Nous aurons déjà mangé.

We will have already eaten.

There are two auxiliary verbs in French: avoir(to have) and être(to be). Which auxiliary verb you use depends on the verb you are conjugating, but most of the time the auxiliary for a compound tense will be avoir. In addition to the auxiliary verb, you will also need to form the past participle. In this post, you’ll learn how to select the auxiliary verb and form the past participle, as well as which different compound tenses you can expect to encounter in French. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

    How to choose between the auxiliaries ‘avoir’ and ‘être’?

    Most verbs use the auxiliary avoir(to have), and only a handful of them use être(to be). Take a look at the table below to see which verbs take the auxiliary être in French:

    For which verbs?


    to be

    Tu es allé au marché ?

    Did you go to the market?

    Arriver / partir

    to arrive / to leave

    Descendre / Monter

    to go down / to go up

    Venir / aller

    to come / to go

    Entrer / sortir

    to enter / to go out

    Naître / mourir

    to be born / to die

    Tomber / rester

    to fall / to stay


    to return


    to pass


    to have

    Elle a mangé une banane.

    She ate a banana.

    All other verbs


    Can you see that the first letters of our first pairs form the acronym ADVENT? That can help you remember them. If, like me, you are a visual learner, you will find this infographic helpful. Last but not least, have you heard of my old friend Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp?


    All verbs that take the auxiliary être that have a prefix will still take être. For example with venir(to come), you can have parvenir(to reach), devenir(to become), revenir(to come back), and intervenir(to intervene). These all take the auxiliary être.

    However, sometimes a verb can take both the auxiliary avoir and être. Take a look at the exception below.


    Monter, descendre, entrer, and retourner use the auxiliary avoir when they are followed by a direct object. Otherwise, they use the auxiliary être.

    Je suis sortie.

    I went out.

    Je suis sortie avec mon amie.

    I went out with my friend.

    J’ai sorti la poubelle.

    I took the garbage can out.

    Now that you know how to select the auxiliary verb for compound tenses, let’s look at the second step of forming compound tenses: how to form the past participle.

    How to form the past participle?

    To form the past participle of a verb, you need to check the verb ending of the infinitive and modify the verb form accordingly. You will follow these steps for -er, -ir, and -re verbs, but keep in mind that there are also some irregular French past participles:

    Verb ending in -er
    Verb ending in -ir
    Some verbs ending in -re

    Remove -er, add

    Remove -r

    Remove -re, add -u

    jouer(to play)jou-joué

    finir(to finish)fini

    vendre(to sell)vend-vendu

    So, how would you find the past participle of the verb trouver(to find)? Let's work it out together:

    • trouver ends in -er.

    • remove the ending -er and you are left with trouv.

    • Add , and voilà ! Your past participle is trouvé.

    In the table above, I mention “some” verbs ending in -re. How about the rest? Here is a list of the most common irregular past participles. Irregular means they do not follow this pattern above and you have to learn them by heart. The good news is that you will use them so often that you’ll remember them very quickly!


    Around 80 percent of verbs in French end in -er. So, trust me, you will very quickly get used to working out the past participle.

    Sometimes, you might need to make some changes to your past participle. Let’s take a look!

    When to form past participle agreement in French compound tenses?

    In French, past participle agreement can take place between the past participle and the subject or (occasionally) the direct object. The rules for how and when this agreement takes place will depend on which auxiliary verb is used, être or avoir, and sometimes other aspects of the sentence's structure as well. Let's have a look!

    How to form participle agreement after the auxiliary ‘être’ in French?

    With verbs using the auxiliary être, the past participle must agree with the subject in gender and number:


    Masculine singular

    No agreement

    Il est monté.

    He went up.

    Masculine plural

    Add -s

    Ils sont montés.

    They went up.

    Feminine singular

    Add -e

    Il est montée.

    She went up.

    Feminine plural

    Add -es

    Il est montées.

    They went up.

    This is the most common form of past participle agreement. However, there are some instances in which the past participle will need agreement when the auxiliary avoir is used, as well. Most of the time, however, there is no past participle agreement with avoir. Let's take a look at this next.

    How to form past participle agreement after the auxiliary ‘avoir’ in French?

    In verbs that use the auxiliary avoir the past participle almost always stays the same, whether the subject is masculine, feminine, singular, or plural. 🎉 And the best news is... most verbs use avoir!

    Hier, j’ai acheté des fleurs.

    Yesterday, I bought flowers.

    La semaine dernière, elle a acheté des bonbons.

    Last week, she bought sweets.

    Mardi, ils ont acheté des cartes postales.

    On Tuesday, they bought postcards.


    If the direct object is before the verb, the past participle must agree in number and gender with the direct object in French. The endings to use are the same as the ones we saw above.

    direct object

    Les cartes postales que j’ai achetées sont belles.

    The postcards I bought are nice.

    the direct object is before the verb and it is feminine plural, so I add -es to the past participle.

    Tip: To find the direct object of the sentence, ask “what”: What did I buy? The postcards.

    There are many more specific exceptions and rules when it comes to forming agreement with the past participle in compound tenses. Check out our post on past participle agreement in French to learn more!

    Finally, let’s take a look at some of the most common compound tenses in French.

    What are the most common French compound tenses?

    The most common compound tenses in French include the passé composé, the pluperfect, the future perfect, the conditional perfect, the past subjunctive, and the past infinitive. In all of these compound tenses and moods, the formula includes both an auxiliary verb and a past participle. The past participle formation will always be the same across all compound tenses, along with the rules of agreement. However, the tense of the auxiliary verb will change, depending on which compound tense you are using. Take a look at the examples of each below:

    Compound tense
    Auxiliary verb tense

    Passé composé


    La fille a étudié.

    The girl studied.



    La fille avait étudié.

    The girl had studied.

    Future perfect


    La fille aura étudié.

    The girl will have studied.

    Conditional perfect

    Conditional present

    La fille aurait étudié.

    The girl would have studied.

    Past subjunctive

    Subjunctive present

    Il est possible que la fille ait étudié.

    It’s possible that the girl studied.

    Past infinitive


    avoir étudié

    to have studied

    Let’s recap

    When using compound tenses in French, keep the following points in mind:

    • Compound tenses are made up of an auxiliary verb (avoir or être) and a past participle

    • Check if your verb requires the auxiliary avoir, except for certain verbs of motion and reflexive verbs. The tense of the auxiliary verb depends on the tense of the compound tense.

    • Form the past participle according to the ending of the infinitive of your verb, but remember that there are some tricky irregular past participle forms!

    • If you are using the auxiliary être, remember that your past participle must agree with the subject. You can’t hear the difference, but you can see it! (Il est parti / Elle est partie / Elles sont parties). Most of the time, there is no agreement with auxiliary avoir, but occasionally an agreement in gender and number will form with the direct object.

    • There are several compound tenses in French, but the tense and mood of the auxiliary verb changes among them.

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