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We’ll try in today’s post to shed some light on the different uses of a special French grammatical tense called “le passé composé” —That way, you won’t be feeling too “tense” about it anymore!
Actually, linguists nowadays prefer to speak of a “tiroir verbal” (literally “verbal drawer”) instead of un temps grammatical. And what was called for a while “prétérit indéfini” would only later be renamed “passé composé.”
It is maybe this name change that caused the grammatical function of the passé composé to become less and less clear (even to a great deal of native French speakers!), especially since there also exist other temps composés of le mode indicatif (the “mode indicatif” is known as “realis mood” in English.)
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Now, having said that, what’s really important to know about the use of le passé composé before anything else is that it is mainly used for le discours (the speech)—in the grammatical sense of the word.
It expresses events which are completely achevés (finished) at some point in the past with respect to the present.
But attention, my friends!
The passé composé can also be used for events at any determined point in the past, when it’s used informally…
For example, it is the passé simple which should be used in the sentence: “J’ai été ravi, plus tard, quand elle m’a envoyé un joli bouquet de fleurs.” (“I was delighted, later, when she sent me a beautiful flower bouquet.”) In the formal way, of course, you would say: “Je fus ravi…”
It is true that the passé simple and the passé composé tend to be used interchangeably by many French speakers, but strictly speaking, they do not hold the same value nor do they hold the same function.
Finally, and this may have hopefully been pointed out by your French teacher, the passé composé can reflect l’antériorité (the precedence) with respect to an event of le futur proche (the near future): “Si notre équipe a marqué, tu me téléphones tout de suite!” (“If our team scored, you call me right away!”)