The French past perfect, or pluperfect, (plus-que-parfait) is used to indicate an action in the past that occurred before another action in the past. The latter can be either mentioned in the same sentence or implied.
Il n’avait pas mangé (avant de faire ses devoirs).
He hadn’t eaten (before doing his homework).
J’étais déjà sorti (quand tu as téléphoné).
I had already left (when you called).
The pluperfect is also used in si clauses to express a hypothetical situation in the past contrary to what actually happened:
Si tu m’avais demandé, j’aurais répondu.
If you had asked me, I would have answered.
Nous y serions allés si nous avions su.
We would have gone if we had known.
The French past perfect is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts:
- imperfect of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être)
- past participle of the main verb
Note: Like all French compound conjugations, the past perfect may be subject to grammatical agreement:
- When the auxiliary verb is être, the past participle must agree with the subject
- When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle may have to agree with its direct object
|French Past Perfect Verb Conjugations
|AIMER (auxiliary verb is avoir)
|DEVENIR (être verb)
|SE LAVER (pronominal verb)
||nous étions lavé(e)s
||vous étiez lavé(e)(s)
There are other forms of the past in French. Let me introduce you to a visual mnemonic for past perfect/pluperfect:
Pluperfect/Past Perfect (plus-que-parfait) – Ava had flown Avions to the EU, and the ETA was pluperfect, EZ and convenient.
The pluperfect is the tense which gave me the most trouble when conjugating. It doesn’t help that it is also known as the Past Perfect (which means it contains the past participle element, which means there are two auxiliary verb conjugations to worry about). There are two words which anchor the mnemonic, Avions and Pluperfect. Either one, for me, triggers the entire mnemonic, which in turn solves the riddle of the conjugation, and the English equivalents.
In the Passé Composé (Present Perfect in English) form, many verbs conjugate with être, and must match in gender and number of persons. Passé Composé is the most common French past tense, and expresses an action completed in the past, repeated a number of times in the past, or a series of actions completed in the past. The equivalent of Passé Composé in English, is the simple past (I danced), present perfect (I have danced) and past emphatic (I did dance).
The Passé Composé uses “avoir” for every verb except 17 verbs that use “être”. There is a memory tool…DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP (Devenir Revenir Monter Rester Sortir Venir Aller Naître Descendre Entrer Retourner Tomber Rentrer Arriver Mourir Partir), and it’s easier to memorize these verbs than to make sense of anything else. Many teachers rely on this picture:
There is even a song for learning the 17 verbs that use “être”:
The forms of Être (to be) that we are most likely to encounter, for the most common verb conjugations, are as follows:
Present – Je suis, Tu es, Il est, Nous sommes, Vous êtes, ils sont
Future – Je serai, Tu seras, Il sera, Nous serons, Vous serez, Ils seront
Imperfect – Je étais, Tu étais, Il était, Nou étions, Vous étiez, Ils étaient
Subjunctive – Je sois, Tu sois, Il soit, Nous soyons, Vous soyez, Ils soient
Conditional – Je serais, Tu serais, Il serait, Nous serions, Vous seriez, Ils seraient
Passé Simple – Je fus, Tu fus, Il fut, Nous fûmes, Vous fûtes, Ils furent
Imperative – Tu sois, Nous soyons, Vous soyez
Present Participle – étant
Past Participle – été
Auxiliary Verb – avoir
Verbs that conjugate with Être are: aller, arriver, descendre, devenir, entrer, monter, mourir, naître, partir, rentrer, rester, retourner, revenir, sortir, tomber and venir.
The forms of Avoir (to have) that we are most likely to encounter are as follows:
Present – J’ai, Tu as, Il a, Nous avons, Vous avez, ils ont
Future – Je aurai, Tu auras, Il aura, Nous aurons, Vous aurez, Ils auront
Imperfect – Je avais, Tu avais, Il avait, Nou avions, Vous aviez, Ils avaient
Subjunctive – Je aie, Tu aies, Il ait, Nous ayons, Vous ayez, Ils aient
Conditional – Je aurais, Tu aurais, Il aurait, Nous aurions, Vous auriez, Ils auraient
Passé Simple – Je eus, Tu eus, Ile eut, Nous eûmes, Vous eûtes, Ils eurent
Imperative – Tu aie, Nous ayons, Vous ayez
Present Participle – ayant
Past Participle – eu
Auxiliary Verb – avoir
Many idioms use avoir, and the meaning differs from “to have” and can often be confused with “to be”. The “Il y a” expressions are often confusing for this reason. “Il y a” means “there is” or “there are” although “a” is the conjugated “to have”.
In the Passé Composé, Être and Avoir are used with the imperfect form of other verbs, to create compound tenses that describe past actions which have completed.
There are irregular Passé Composé verbs, covered here:
Here is a visual mnemonic for Passé Composé:
Present Perfect (passé composé) – A composer says, “I have spoken!”, to his Avon selling son.
This visual not only tells you the English equivalent, but reminds you that an accent mark at the end of the past particle tells you that it is one of the perfect tenses. You will see this tense so often, that you will probably have no problem with the je, tu, il, and vous conjugations, but you may be tricked by the nous and ils conjugations. The mnemonic addresses that with Avon and son, color linking mnemonic words to the conjugations.
We’ve now coverered Past Perfect (Pluperfect), and Passé Composé. There is also Past Imperfect.
Normally the Past Imperfect describes actions that are on-going. A good example of this is the Past Imperfect, “je mangeais”, which means I was eating (on going action). The Passé Composé version, “j’ai mangé”, translates to the English equivalent Present Perfect of “I have eaten”, and the action is completed. That’s the simplest way to differentiate between Passé Composé and Past Imperfect.
Here is a visual mnemoic for the Past Imperfect (imparfait):
Imperfect (imparfait) – She was eating a parfait, it is imperfect, how I-ronic.
For an American, a parfait is something they sell at McDonald’s, and it contains yogurt or ice cream, and is adorned with nuts, syrup, etc. What could be more perfect? The irony is that as “she” was eating one, it is imperfect, and therefore ironic. The mnemonic attempts to reveal the conjugation trickery of the Imperfect tense. Through the use of colors, the strange “a” that appears in je, tu, il and ils is shown. The “is” and “it” are revealed in the je, tu, and il conjugations, and finally, the word I-ronic reminds the conjugator, to make sure they slip an “i” into each conjugation.
The final past tense in French is one that is used mainly in literature, and it is Passé Simple.
Passé Simple is a third tense used to describe past actions, and is described as being the literary equivalent of Passé Composé, because it is used in formal writing and formal speech. Passé Simple will often look strange, and the verbs are conjugated dependant on the verb’s endings (ER, IR/RE, and irregular).
ER Ending verbs – drop ER and add…
Je –ai, Tu – as, Il – a, Nous – âmes, Vous – âtes, Ils – èrent
IR/RE Ending verbs – drop the IR/RE and add…
Je – is, Tu – is, Il – it, Nous – îmes, Vous – îtes, Ils – irent
Let me give you a visual mnemonic for this tense as well:
Past Simple (passé simple) – Simple paid past-times, test a rented SST
This was the most difficult mnemonic to create, and also the most intricate one. This mnemonic is not as intuitive as the others, and may require you to use it several times before it’s automatic. The mnemonic does contain all of the conjugations for -er verbs, as seen by the colors. The ending triggers the peculiar -ir and -re verb conjugations for je, tu, and Il/elle/on. Notice the accent above the “Nous” and “Vous” conjugations? I have no idea how to trigger that in this mnemonic, so you simply have to note that the accent makes the Past Simple not that simple.