Apprendre la Langue Française (Part 87): les temps composés


French verb conjugations can be divided into two categories: simple tenses and compound tenses.

Simple tenses have only one part (je vais) whereas compound tenses have two (je suis allé).

First, a chart of the two kinds of tenses. The simple tense on the left is used to conjugate the auxiliary verb for the compound tense on the right:

Simple Tenses Compound Tenses*





Passé simple

Present participle


Imperfect subjunctive


Passé composé


Future perfect

Conditional perfect

Past subjunctive

Past anterior

Perfect participle

Past infinitive

Pluperfect subjunctive

Past imperative

* Note: For the sake of simplicity, all the compound conjugations are lumped together. Subjunctive, conditional, infinitive, and participles are actually moods, not tenses, but they share the following characteristics with compound tenses.

Four characteristics of compound tenses

1. Compound tenses are always made up of two parts: the conjugated auxiliary verb and the past participle. French verbs are classified by their auxiliary verb, either avoir or être. Each verb uses the same auxiliary verbs in all of the compound tenses. In the chart above, the tense in the simple column is the tense used as the auxiliary verb for the compound tense listed next to it.


Il est.

Passé composé

Il est allé.


Nous aurons.

Future perfect

Nous aurons mangé.

2. In all compound tenses, the past participle of être verbs has to agree with the subject of the sentence in gender and number.

Il est allé. He went.

Elle était allée. She had gone.

Ils seront allés. They will have gone.

…qu’elles soient allées. …that they went.

In addition, the past participle of avoir verbs that are preceded by a direct object must agree with the direct object*

Les livres que tu as commandés sont ici. The books that you ordered are here.

La pomme ? Je l’aurai mangée. The apple? I will have eaten it.

Mes sœurs… vous les aviez vues ? My sisters… had you seen them?

*Except for verbs of perception

When the direct object follows an avoir verb, there is no agreement.

As-tu commandé des livres ? Did you order some books?

J’aurai mangé la pomme. I will have eaten the apple.

Aviez-vous vu mes sœurs ? Had you seen my sisters?

When an indirect object precedes an avoir verb, there is no agreement.

    Je leur ai parlé.
    I talked to them.

    Il nous a téléphoné.
    He called us.

If both a direct and indirect object precede the verb, the past participle agrees with the direct object.

    Il me les a donnés.
    He gave them to me.

    Je la lui ai dite.
    I said it to him.

3. Personal and adverbial pronouns always precede the auxiliary verb in compound tenses:

Je te l’ai donné. I gave it to you.

Il l’avait fait. He had done it.

Nous y serons allés. We will have gone there.

4. Negative structures surround the auxiliary verb**

Je n’ai pas étudié. I didn’t study.

Nous n’aurions jamais su. We would have never known.

    **Two exceptions:

    In the past infinitive, both parts of the negation precede the auxiliary verb:

    J’espère ne pas avoir perdu. I hope I didn’t lose.

    The negative pronouns personne and aucun and the negative adverb nulle part follow the past participle:

    Je n’ai vu personne. I didn’t see anyone.

    Je ne l’ai trouvé nulle part. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

If you have both a pronoun and a negative adverb, the pronoun is placed in front of the auxiliary verb, and then the negative structure surrounds both.

Je ne te l’ai pas donné. I didn’t give it to you.

Nous n’y serions pas allés. We wouldn’t have gone there.


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