Forming And Using The 5 Past Tenses In French: Full Guide

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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Forming And Using The 5 Past Tenses In French: Full Guide

The past tense forms in French can be confusing for new learners.

It’s important to learn the rules of each form, and the appropriate contexts to use them in.

This guide will cover the past tense forms in detail, so you can start using them in your spoken and written French.

What are the five past tenses in French?

First of all, let’s actually identify what the five past tenses are in French. They include:

  • The imperfect past tense
  • The compound past tense
  • The past simple
  • The pluperfect past tense
  • The anterior past tense

Each of these past tenses are used for different reasons.

Yes, they’re all past tenses, but there are certain rules that you’ll need to be aware of when forming and using them. Sit tight to find out how.

When is the imperfect past tense used in French?

We use the imperfect past tense to describe an action that occurred repeatedly, frequently or on an ongoing basis in the past.

To understand it as an English speaker, it helps to compare the imperfect past tense to phrases that contain the words “used to” or “would always”.

French writers use the imperfect past tense when they’re narrating a story or describing events that have happened in the past as a sort of commentary.

Examples of when to use the imperfect past tense in French

To clarify and explain which situations the imperfect past tense is used in French, here are three examples.

1. Use the imperfect past tense to describe something habitual that happened in the past

When describing habitual actions in the past, such as hobbies, we use the imperfect past tense in French.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Quand elle était enfant, Joséphine dessinait.

When she was a child, Josephine used to sketch.

2. Use the imperfect past tense to describe actions that happened at the same time in the past

When describing actions that occurred simultaneously in the past, we use the imperfect past tense in French.

This is sometimes indicated by the preposition pendant, which means “during”, or “while”.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Pendant qu’elle dessinait, Joséphine regardait le paysage.

While she was sketching, Josephine looked at the scenery.

3. Use the imperfect past tense to describe how a person used to be in the past

When describing someone’s characteristics that they had as a child or an action that they did frequently, we use the imperfect past tense to describe them.

This is often accompanied with the word “used to”.

Here are two examples:

Listen to audio

Elle parlait beaucoup quand elle était jeune.

She used to speak a lot when she was young.
Listen to audio

Elle avait les cheveux longs, maintenant elle a les cheveux courts.

She used to have long hair, but now she has short hair.

Which verb endings are used to conjugate the imperfect past tense in French?

The verbs we choose when writing or speaking in the imperfect past tense must be conjugated using particular verb endings that correspond to the subject of the sentence indicated by the personal pronouns, including the ones listed below:

For infinitive verbs ending in -er, choose from these endings:

  • -ais (for the pronoun je)
  • -ais (for the pronoun tu)
  • -ait (for the pronouns il, elle, on)
  • -ions (for the pronoun nous)
  • -iez (for the pronoun vous)
  • -aient (for the pronouns ils, elles)

For infinitive verbs ending in -ir, choose from these endings:

  • -issais (for the pronoun je)
  • -issais (for the pronoun tu)
  • -issait (for the pronoun il, elle, on)
  • -issions (for the pronoun nous)
  • -issiez (for the pronoun vous)
  • -issaient (for the pronouns ils, elles)

For infinitive verbs ending in -re, choose from these endings:

  • -ais (for the pronoun je)
  • -ais (for the pronoun tu)
  • -ait (for the pronoun il, elle, on)
  • -ions (for the pronoun nous)
  • -iez (for the pronoun vous)
  • -aint (for the pronouns ils, elles)

Use these verb endings to make different people the subject of the sentence.

For instance, in our example above, Josephine is the subject of the sentence, so we conjugate the verb dessinait using the third person, imperfect past tense, elle, (which has the ending -ait).

When is the compound past tense used in French?

The compound past tense is used frequently in French to describe an action that happened once in the past and has now been completed.

It is different from the imperfect since it describes actions that are not frequent or habitual. It helps to compare the compound past tense to the English past simple to understand it a little better.

In English, some examples of the past simple tense include “I ate”, “I drank”, “I slept”, and “I wrote”.

All of these actions have finished and belong to the past, and the equivalent past tense in French is the compound past tense, giving us j’ai mange, j’ai bu, j’ai dormi, j’ai écrit.

Here are some examples of the compound past tense in French in action.

1. Describing an action that happened once in the past

If an action only happens once in the past, such as being born, use the compound past tense.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Je suis né à l’été 1991.

I was born in the summer of 1991.

2. Describing an action that happened once in the past but is linked to the present

This can be likened to the Spanish preterito perfecto, where you describe a past event that occurs once, but it has consequences in the present or affects the present.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Nous avons tellement mangé que nous ne pouvons pas manger de dessert.

We have eaten so much that we can’t eat dessert.

How is the compound past tense formed in French?

We can use a formula to conjugate the compound past tense in French.

It comprises the verbs avoir or étre and the past participle of the main verb. The formula is:

Avoir or être in the present tense or an auxiliary verb + the main verb in the past participle

How to conjugate avoir and être in the present tense

To simplify the process of forming sentences in the compound past tense in French, check the table below to find out how to conjugate avoir and être in the present tense:

Personal pronounAvoir in the present tenseÊtre in the present tense
JeAiSuis
TuAsEs
Il / elle / onAEst
NousAvonsSommes
VousAvezÊtes
Ils / ellesOntSont

Forming the past participle for the compound past tense

Part of forming the compound past tense includes using the past participle, which can be done in different ways depending on the infinitive verb you want to modify.

It can be difficult to remember the rules, but it comes in handy for forming many of the past tenses in French, including the compound past tense, the pluperfect past tense, and the anterior past tense, so refer back to this section to help you.

In French, there are regular verbs and irregular verbs that you can modify to form the past participle.

Let’s first think about how to achieve this with regular verbs.

Forming the past participle with regular -er, -ir and -re verbs

We have divided this part into three sections, regular -er verbs, regular -ir verbs and regular -re verbs.

1. Past participles for -er verbs

For French verbs that end in -er _in their infinitive form, we form the past participle simply by removing the -er and replacing it with -é_.

For instance, if we’ve got the verb aimer, which ends in an -er in the infinitive form, we would remove the -er and replace it with é, giving us aimé.

2. Past participles for -ir verbs

If we have a French verb that ends in -ir in its infinitive form, we form the past participle by simply removing the -ir and replacing it with an -i.

For example, the verb choisir in its infinitive form ends in an -ir. We remove the -ir and replace it with -i, giving us choisi.

3. Past participles for -re verbs

If we have a French verb that ends in -re in its infinitive form, we form the past participle by removing the -re, and replacing it with a -u.

For instance, the verb vendre in its infinitive form ends in an -re. We remove the -re and replace it with -u, giving us vendu.

Now, this is only for regular verbs. There are different rules for irregular verbs. Let’s have a look at them.

Forming the past participle with irregular French verbs

Since it can be very difficult to remember the rules, you can use verb conjugation tools to help you remember the past participle of irregular French verbs, but we have put together a list of rules to help you remember the past participle forms for many of them.

With some irregular verbs, you can replace their endings with a -u to form the past participle, some of which are:

French irregular verbPast participle form
TenirTenu
SavoirSu
BoireBu
CourirCouru
LireLu
VivreVécu
VoirVu
RecevoirReçu

With other irregular verbs, you can replace their endings with a -t, which will give you the past participle.

Some examples of verbs like these include:

French irregular verbPast participle form
ConstruireConstruit
ÉcrireÉcrit
FaireFait
TraduireTraduit
DireDit
CraindreCrant

Other irregular verbs require you to replace their endings with an -is to form the past participle.

Take a look at the table below for some examples of these verbs:

French irregular verbPast participle form
ApprendreAppris
ComprendreCompris
PrendrePris
PromettrePromis

There are irregular verbs that require you to replace their endings with an -ert, which will give you the past participle, such as the ones below:

French irregular verbPast participle form
OffrirOffert
OuvrirOuvert
SouffrirSouffert

Some other irregular verbs don’t follow precise patterns, so you will need to remember them on your own, or use a conjugator tool to keep it fresh in your memory.

These include:

French irregular verbPast participle form
ÊtreÉté
MourirMort
Naître

When is the past simple used in French?

The past simple is used in French to refer to an action that takes place once in the past.

The action that the past simple describes is always complete or has finished.

Using the past simple tense in French: examples

Let’s take a look at the main scenarios in which you would use the past simple in French.

1. Use the past simple to describe an action that occurs once and has been completed

If the action is not repeated in the past and has finished now, use the past simple in French.

The past simple is often accompanied with words that mark the time of the action, such as hier or l’année dernière.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Hier, mangeai une pomme.

Yesterday, I ate an apple.

2. Use the past simple to talk about several actions that have interrupted a previous action

If there are several actions that have occurred and they interrupt an action, or caused it to stop happening in the past, use the simple past tense. It helps to think about this past tense as if you’re telling a story as an author would, and something happens suddenly, interrupting another past action.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Je nettoyais ma chambre quand le téléphone a sonna.

I was cleaning my bedroom when the phone rang.

How are the past simple in French and the compound past tense different?

The main difference between the simple and compound past tenses in French is that the simple past tense is used in written French, whereas the compound past tense is used in spoken French.

To put it another way, it is best to use the compound past tense when speaking, and the simple past when writing.

How is the past simple formed in French?

When using the past simple in French, the verb you use must be selected from the past simple conjugations and the right ending must be added to the infinitive verb.

If you are conjugating an infinitive verb in the past simple that ends in er, choose from the following endings:

  • -ai (for the pronoun je)
  • -as (for the pronoun tu)
  • -a (for the pronoun il, elle, on)
  • -âmes (for the pronoun nous)
  • -âtes (for the pronoun vous)
  • -érent (for the pronouns ils, elles)

If you are conjugating an infinitive verb in the past simple that ends in ir, choose from the following endings:

  • -is (for the pronoun je)
  • -is (for the pronoun tu)
  • -it (for the pronoun il, elle, on)
  • -îmes (for the pronoun nous)
  • -îtes (for the pronoun vous)
  • -irent (for the pronounssils, elles)

If you are conjugating an infinitive verb in the past simple that ends in re, choose from the following endings:

  • -is (for the pronoun je)
  • -is (for the pronoun tu)
  • -it (for the pronoun il, elle, on)
  • -îmes (for the pronoun nous)
  • -îtes (for the pronoun vous)
  • -irent (for the pronoun ils, elles)

When is the pluperfect past tense used in French?

In French, we use the pluperfect when an event happened before another action in the past.

For this reason, we use the pluperfect tense with other past tenses in French, including the past simple or the compound past tense. We normally use it to describe a story or tell an anecdote.

How to use the pluperfect past tense in French: an example

For example, if you know an author who is writing a novel, someone might explain that it took a lot of practice for them to perfect the writing process.

To say this, they could use the pluperfect past tense:

Listen to audio

Il avait beaucoup écrit avant de pouvoir écrire le livre.

He had written a lot before he could write the book.

How is the pluperfect past tense formed in French?

We form the pluperfect past tense in French by combining avoir and être in the imperfect tense with a main verb in its past participle form.

You can use the following formula to help you remember the pluperfect past tense in French:

Avoir or être in the imperfect tense + the main verb in the past participle

So, here’s how to form the verbs avoir and être in the imperfect tense to help you form the pluperfect:

Personal pronounAvoir in imperfect tenseÊtre in imperfect tense
JeAvaisÉtais
TuAvaisÉtais
Il / elle / onAvaitÉtait
NousAvionsÉtions
VousAviezÉtiez
Ils / ellesAvaientÉtaient

How is the pluperfect past tense formed with negative sentences?

If you’re writing a negative sentence in the pluperfect past tense, always remember that the main verb in the past participle form should follow the negation and come after the word pas.

How is the pluperfect past tense formed for negative sentences that contain reflexive verbs?

If you’re writing a negative sentence in the pluperfect past tense that contains a reflexive verb, keep in mind that you must place the reflexive pronoun in between the first part of the negation – after the word ne – and before the main verb in its auxiliary form.

When is the anterior past tense used in French?

Although the anterior past tense is not used frequently in French, and you’ll only really notice it being used in literary books or in literature, it is used in the same situations as the pluperfect.

It describes an event that takes place before another event in the past.

Sentences that use this past tense will always contain two actions.

You will notice that the anterior past tense in French is indicated where one of the conjunctions appear in the dependent clause of a sentence:

  • Lorsque
  • Quand
  • Après que
  • Aussitôt que

How to use the anterior past tense: an example

Here is an example of how the anterior past tense is used in French:

Listen to audio

Lorsqu’il eut reçu la bonne nouvelle, il a décidé de dire aux voisins.

Before he received the good news, he decided to tell the neighbours.

Notice that there are two events in this example – receiving good news and telling the neighbours.

There’s also the conjunction lorsque, which signals that the anterior past tense will be used in the sentence.

How is the pluperfect past tense different from the anterior past tense in French?

Although they use similar constructs, the anterior past tense is used in formal writing or in texts that are formal, whereas the pluperfect is used in speech.

How is the anterior past tense formed in French?

We form the anterior past tense in French by using the past simple of the verb avoir or être, combined with the past participle of a main verb.

The formula for this is:

Avoir / être in past simple + the main verb in past participle

So, as you can see, forming sentences in the anterior past tense in French requires knowledge of how to conjugate avoir and être in the past simple tense.

Here’s how to do it:

Personal pronounAvoir in past simpleÊtre in past simple
JeEusFus
TuEusFis
Il / elle / onEutFit
NousEûmesFumes
VousEûtesFûtes
Ils / ellesEurentFurent

Confidently describe events in the past in French by forming the French past tenses

As you can see, there’s a lot to cover when learning past tenses in French.

Practising a little bit every day will give you the confidence you need to accurately describe events in the past in French.


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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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Ricardo Sanchez

Ricardo Sanchez

Excellent approach to teach us learners from a formal pedagogical frame. Your insight was a joy to read and fulfills my interest of learning the academic french, not just french.

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