French Language Blog

Le passé composé in French Posted by on Sep 29, 2011 in Grammar, Vocabulary

Passé composé“… Two distinct words when coupled together can saw a bit of confusion in the minds of many, many, helpless new French learners!

Qu’à cela ne tienne (nevermind), we’ll try in today’s post to shed some light on the different uses of this type of grammatical tense – so you won’t feel too “tense” about it anymore.

In other words, be always composed with “le passé composé“!

Today’s linguists prefer actually to speak of “tiroir verbal” (literally “verbal drawer”) instead of temps grammatical, and what was called for a while “prétérit indéfini” would only later be rechristened “passé composé.”

It is maybe this change in name 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.)

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 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.

  • It is different from le passé simple, in which case le sujet (the subject) is dissociated from the time of speech.
  • With le passé composé, the emphasis is on *the present effect or effects* resulting from an action that took place and totally ceased in the past.
    • S’il avait été le jouet de son imagination, l’avenir ne tarderait pas à le désabuser” (“If he had been the toy of her imagination, future would not take long before disenchanting him”, Alexandre Dumas, L’île de feu: Volume 1 – Page 146)
    • Elle est née avec assez d’esprit” (“She was born with quite a mind of her own”, Alexandre Dumas, Mémoires d’une aveugle: Madame du Deffand: Volume 1 – Page 258)
    • Elle était devenue si malheureuse que j’en ai eu pitié” (“She became so miserable that I felt pity for her”, Alexandre Dumas, Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge – Page 77)

But watch out my friends!

The passé composé can also be used for events at any determined point in the past, when it’s not formally used

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 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!”) 🙂

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  1. anais:

    I was reading your instructions and examples of le passe compose and I noticed your Dumas examples are really plus-que-parfait and not passe compose. Also, I have always been thought that passe sample is rarely used in speaking french and it is pretty much in writing.