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How to Easily Understand the French “Passé Composé” Posted by on Nov 1, 2012 in Grammar, Vocabulary

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.)

* * *

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.

  • 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 happening.
  • 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 DumasL’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 DumasMémoires 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 DumasLe Chevalier de Maison-Rouge – Page 77)

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!”)

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  1. MarkF:

    I’m rather confused by your first example (“S’il avait ete..”) because the first verb seems to be in the Plus-que-parfait and the second in the Conditionnel.

  2. Hichem:

    Hello Mark, and thank you for your question! The first example is actually not mine. It is extracted from a novel written by the famous Alexandre Dumas.

    As indicated in the post, the sentence expresses events which are completely “achevés” (finished) at some point in the past with respect to the present.

    Perhaps can you tell me exactly what you find confusing about it, and I can then explain it to you?

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