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Intermediate French: 14 July
Intermediate French: 14 July

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1.1.1 Perfect tense

Grammar Point 1 – Using the perfect tense

The perfect tense is used in French to describe completed actions or events. It is made up of two parts, which is why it is called le passé composé (‘compound past’) in French. The first part is either the verb avoir or the verb être, the second part is the past participle of the main verb. The French passé composé can be translated into English in different ways.

‘Avoir’ + past participle

This is how the passé composé is formed for the majority of French verbs.

  • Des millions de téléspectateurs ont regardé la

  • retransmission du défilé.

  • Millions of viewers watched/have watched the broadcast of the parade.

  • On a oublié tout ça.

  • We have forgotten all that.

‘Être’ + past participle

Être is used with about a dozen common verbs and their compounds (venirrevenir) and with all reflexive verbs (such as se laver). You will work on these later in the course, but in the meantime you should try to learn the six sentences shown below.

Note that when être is used, the past participle agrees with the subject. For example, the basic past participle of partir is parti; in the singular this appears as parti (with a masculine subject) or partie (with a feminine subject), and in the plural as partis or (for an all-feminine subject) parties.

  • Cette année, je suis parti(e) en vacances en juin et je suis reparti(e) encore une fois en août.

  • This year I went on holiday in June and I went again in August.

  • Vous êtes allé(e) où?

  • Where did you go?

  • Tu es venu(e) en bus?

  • Did you come by bus?

  • Je suis arrivé(e) à Lyon début mars et je suis reparti(e) fin avril.

  • I arrived in Lyons at the beginning of March and I left at the end of April.

  • Je suis né(e) le vingt et un janvier.

  • I was born on 21 January.

  • Elles sont venues en Angleterre il y a dix ans et elles sont revenues l’année dernière.

  • They came to England ten years ago and they came again last year.

Past participle endings

All past participles have one of the following four endings:

  • (all verbs that end in -er, + été from the verb être);

  • -i/-is/-it (dormi, fini, suivi; mis, pris, compris, appris; dit, écrit, etc.);

  • -u (venu, voulu, reçu, entendu, vécu, plu, eu, etc.);

  • -ert (ouvert, découvert, offert, souffert, etc.).

You can find other examples of past participles in the verb tables given in your dictionary or grammar book. Here are just a few, shown in context.

  • Nous avons pris l’avion, pas le train, pour aller en Allemagne.

  • We took the plane, not the train, to go to Germany.

  • Elle a fait beaucoup d’efforts.

  • She made/has made a lot of effort.

  • J’ai été journaliste pendant quelques années, mais ensuite j’ai arrêté parce que j’ai eu mes enfants.

  • I was a journalist for a few years, but then I stopped because I had my children.

  • Vous avez été un ami fidèle pendant ces mois difficiles.

  • You have been a faithful friend during these difficult months.

  • Quand je suis allé(e) au Japon j’ai écrit à tous mes amis.

  • When I went to Japan I wrote to all my friends.

Note that plu is the past participle of both pleuvoir (‘to rain’) and plaire (‘to please’). Plaire is much more commonly used to express liking than aimer. Don’t worry about understanding the construction it's used in at this stage; just learn these two very useful phrases:

  • Ça vous a plu?

  • Did you like it?/Did you enjoy it?

  • Oui, ça m’a beaucoup plu.

  • Yes, I enjoyed it a lot/I loved it.

Why not start a section in your Notebook for the passé composé? Write out phrases or sentences it appears in as you come across them (perhaps with one page for each of the four past participle endings). You could also invent short dialogues using past participles that have the same ending: the rhyme may help you to memorise them. There is an example of this technique in the next activity, where we have used only monosyllabic past participles ending in ‘-u’.

Activité 3

Voici un dialogue entendu le lendemain du quatorze juillet. Traduisez-le en anglais. Faites particulièrement attention aux passés composés donnés en gras.

The past participles all come from the infinitives shown beneath the dialogue.

  • PAULE Vous avez vu le feu d’artifice?

  • COLETTE Non, j’ai dû rester avec les enfants à la maison. Alors, j’ai lu. Et vous, le bal public, ça vous a plu?

  • PAULE Énormément, mais je n’ai pas pu danser longtemps parce que j’ai trop bu. Et puis, vers une heure du matin, il a plu!

Infinitive forms:

boire • devoir • lire • plaire • pleuvoir • pouvoir • voir

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You might have translated this as something like the following:

Did you see the fireworks?/No, I had to stay with the children at home, so I read. What about you? Did you enjoy the dancing?/Very much so, but I couldn't dance for long because I had too much to drink/And then, getting on for one in the morning, it started raining!

Écoutez plusieurs fois l’extrait où est enregistré ce dialogue. Ensuite répétez-le à haute voix, en même temps. Prononcez bien distinctement le ‘-u’ des participes passés. Apprenez le dialogue par cœur.

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To pronounce the [y] sound of the ‘-u’ in plu, vu, etc. correctly, keep your lips drawn together in a tight circle, as if you were whistling, and then say ‘ee’. Learning this dialogue by heart will help you remember these past participles ending in ‘-u’.

Key Point 1: Reinforcing learning through memorisation

When acting a short dialogue like the one above out loud in order to memorise it, try to adopt a different voice for each person and to emphasise the feelings expressed (Colette is disappointed, Paule is enthusiastic). Apart from remembering useful phrases, this will help you with your pronunciation and intonation.

Choose short extracts from the other dialogues you have been working on – including the video – and learn them by heart too, following the same methods. For example, in the video conversation with Étienne on the beach (reproduced below) you could emphasise both his annoyance with the crowds and the interviewer's sympathetic tone. To work on your vocabulary you could also add words of your own, such as the ones shown here in bold.

  • QUESTION Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez dans une plage, qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut, qu’est-ce que vous préférez?

  • ÉTIENNE Le calme! La tranquillité! La paix!

  • QUESTION Donc, il y a trop de monde ici.

  • ÉTIENNE Voilà!

  • QUESTION Des familles, trop de gosses…

  • ÉTIENNE Voilà. Beaucoup trop!!

  • QUESTION Donc la prochaine fois, vous irez où?

  • ÉTIENNE Ailleurs! Loin d’ici!