When talking about things that happened in the past in French, you will most likely use the compound tense known as the passé composé.
It’s called a compound tense because it’s made of two parts, an auxiliary and a past participle.
In the example below, ai (have) is the auxiliary and pensé (thought) is the past participle. Together, they make up the passé composé.
J'ai pensé à vous hier.
I thought of you yesterday.Play Caption
In this lesson we will focus on conjugating verbs ending in -er (also known as first-group verbs) in the infinitive form or dictionary form, since they are the most common verbs.
To make up the passé composé, you conjugate the auxiliaries avoir (to have) or être (to be) in the present tense and add the past participle of the main verb. Most verbs take the auxiliary avoir and only a few take the auxiliary être, which we'll explore in a future lesson.
Les auxiliaires "être" et "avoir" sont utilisés pour conjuguer les formes composées.
The auxiliaries "être" and "avoir" are used to conjugate compound forms.Play Caption
Par exemple, le verbe "manger" avec "avoir". J'ai mangé une pomme.
For example, the verb "manger" [to eat] with "avoir." I ate an apple.
Caption 10, Manon et Clémentine Conjugaison du verbe êtrePlay Caption
The passé composé is the equivalent of the simple past (I did) and the present perfect (I have done).
So, for example, j’ai pensé can be translated as "I thought" or "I have thought" depending on the context. In any case, the auxiliary avoir cannot be dropped in French, as we do with "have" in English.
In her lesson on the passé composé, Patricia explains how to form a past participle:
Et le participe passé, c'est très simple. Il suffit de remplacer "er" par "é".
And the past participle is very simple. You just have to replace "er" with "é".Play Caption
The -er ending that Patricia mentions is the ending of an infinitive verb, which will become a past participle ending in -é (don't forget the accent mark!). For example, take out the -er ending of préparer (to prepare) and replace it with -é to make up the past participle préparé (prepared). Note that préparer and préparé sound the same, as the -r ending of the infinitive form is always silent.
Et donc j'ai préparé une leçon très utile pour vous.
And so I prepared a very useful lesson for you.Play Caption
Here's a final example of the passé composé:
Ils ont cuisiné hier, tous ensemble.
They cooked yesterday, all together.Play Caption
Remember that you will need to be familiar with the present tense of avoir in order to form the passé composé.
For a complete conjugation of cuisiner (to cook) in the passé composé, check out Patricia’s lesson.
So far, we’ve focused on conjugating first-group, -er verbs, but there are many more to explore! We'll see you for another round of verbs in a future lesson!