Wednesday, July 1, 2015

French Grammar: Past Tense Verbs

In French, the past tense include the passe compose, the imperfect tense, the pluperfect tense and the passe simple.

The Formation of the Passe Compose
The passe compose is generally translated into English by the simple past (I lived, she wrote), the present perfect (I have lived, she has written) and the emphatic past (I did live, she did write). The passe compose is used when one knows how long a past action lasted, how many times it occurred, and at what precise moment it happened.

Like the English present perfect, the passe compose is a compound tense. It consists of an auxiliary and the past participle of the verb in question. In English, the auxiliary is always the verb 'to have'. In French, it can be either avoir or etre. Most French use avoir to build the passe compose. The second element of the passe compose is the past participle.

The past participle of regular verbs can be formed in the following ways. With -er verbs, the -er ending is dropped and is replaced with -e: (parler - parle)
j'ai parle (I spoke, I have spoken, I did speak), tu as parle, il/elle/on a parle, nous avons parle, vous avez parle, ils/elles ont parle.

With -ir verbs, the -ir ending is dropped and is replaced with -i: (finir - fini)
j'ai fini (I finished, I have finished, I did finish), tu as fini, il/elle/on a fini, nous avons fini, vous avez fini, ils/elles ont fini.

With -re verbs the -re ending is dropped and is replaced with -u: (repondre -repondu)
j'ai repondu (I answered, I have answered, I did answer), tu as repondu, il/elle/on a repondu, nous avons repondu, vous avez repondu, ils/elles ont repondu.

Irregular verbs, however, have irregular past participles which must be memorized. Below is a list of some of these verbs.

Infinitive ----------------English Meaning --------------Past Participle
avoir -------------------------to have --------------------------eu
boire------------------------- to drink -------------------------bu
construire --------------------to build ---------------------construit
connaitre ---------------------to know ----------------------connu
disparaitre -----------------to disappear -------------------disparu
faire ------------------------ to make, do ---------------------fait
lire ---------------------------- to read -------------------------lu
ouvrir -------------------------to open -----------------------ouvert
apprendre --------------------to learn -----------------------appris

The past participle using avoir to form the passe compose may change under certain circumstances. It should be noted that the past participle of verbs using avoir as auxiliary to form the passe compose agrees in gender and number with a preceding direct object. If the object is feminine singular, -e is added to the past participle, if it is masculine plural, -s is added (except when the participle ends in -s): if it is feminine plural, -es is added. For example:
  1. Quels livres avez-vous lus? (Which books did you read?)
  2. Il nous a reconnus. (He recognized us)
  3. Quelle imprimante ont-ils achetee? (Which printer did they buy?)
  4. Quelle chance elle a eue! (How lucky she was!)
  5. Combien de photos avez-vous prises? (How many pictures did you take?)
  6. La lettre que j'ai ecrite est longue. (The letter that I wrote is long)
However, the past participle remains unchanged if there is no preceding direct object, if the direct object follows the past participle eg Elle a vu la generale (She saw the dress rehearsal) or if the preceding object is indirect eg Ils leur ont repondu (They answered them).
A small number of French verbs form the passe compose with etre rather than avoir. Most of these express motion or a change of state. If the past participle of verbs is conjugated with etre, they must agree in gender and number with the subject. If the subject is feminine singular, -e is added to the past participle, if the subject is masculine plural, -s is added, and if the subject is feminie plural, -es is added. Here is a model conjugation:
aller (to go):je suis alle(e), tu es alle(e), il est alle, elle est allee, nous sommes alle(e)s, vous etes alle(e)s, ils sont alles, elle sont allees.
To form the passe compose correctly, it is necessary to choose the correct form of the auxiliary verb as well as the correct form of the past participle.

The Imperfect Tense
The imperfect tense expresses actions and situations that lasted an indeterminate amount of time (he had a lot of money), occurred an unspecified number of times (she went to church every Sunday), or were in progress often when something else happened (it was raining when they arrived).
The stem of the imperfect tense of all verbs (except etre) is found by dropping the -ons ending of the nous form of the present tense. The imperfect endings are -ais, ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient. For instance, here is the conjugation of the regular verb, parler, in the imperfect tense:
parler (to speak)(nous parlons)
je parlais (I spoke, I was speaking, I used to speak)
tu parlais (you spoke, you were speaking, you used to speak)
il/elle/on parlait (he/she/one spoke/was speaking/used to speak)
nous parlions (we spoke, we were speaking, we used to speak)
vous parliez (you spoke, you were speaking, you used to speak)
ils/elles parlaient (they spoke, they were speaking, they used to speak)

Below is the conjugation of the irregular verbs boire, craindre and dormir:

Infinitive --------- Nous Form of Present Tense ----------- Imperfect
boire (to drink) ----------- nous buvons -------------------- je buyais
craindre (to fear) ---------nous craignons ------------------je craignais
dormir (to sleep) ----------nous dormons ------------------ je dormais

It should be noted that "It is in distinguishing between passe compose (used to represent finished actions) vs imperfect (used to describe actions that were going on in the past) that speakers of English have the most trouble (Didier Bertrand, Test Yourself French Grammar 1996:42).

The Pluperfect Tense
The pluperfect (also called the past perfect) is a compound tense consisting of an auxiliary and the past participle. In French as in English, the pluperfect describes what had happened before another action in the past. In the formation of the pluperfect, the imperfect tense of the auxiliary (avoir or etre) is added to the past participle of the verb in question. For instance here is the conjugation of the regular verb partir in the pluperfect tense.

partir (to leave)
j'etais parti(e) --------------- I had left
tu etais parti(e) --------------you had left
il/on etait parti -------------- he/it/one had left
elle etait partie -------------- she/it had left
nous etions parti(e)s --------- we had left
vous etiez parti(e)s ---------- you had left
ils etaient partis ------------- they had left
elles etaient parties ---------- they had left

The Passe Simple
The passe simple is often called the literary or historical past and it replaces the passe compose in formal speeches and writing. The passe simple is not used in conversations or everyday writing but one can see its usage in very formal speeches, newspaper articles, historical texts, and French Literature.

The passe simple of regular -er ending verbs is formed by adding the endings -ai, -as, -a, -ames, -ates, -erent to the stem of the infinitive. For instance:

donner (to give)
je donnai (I gave)
tu donnas (you gave)
il/elle/on donna (he/she/it/one gave)
nous donnames (we gave)
vous donnates (you gave)
ils/elles donnerent (they gave)

The passe simple of both -ir and -re ending verbs is formed by adding the endings -is, -is, -it, -imes, -ites, -irent to the stem of the infinitive. Eg:

choisir (to choose)
je choisis (I chose), tu choisis (you chose), il/elle/on choisit (he/she/it/one chose), nous choisimes (we chose), vous choisites (you chose), ils/elles choisirent (they chose).

entendre (to hear)
j'entendis (I heard), tu entendis (you heard), il/elle/on entendit (he/she/it/one heard), nous entendimes (we heard), vous entendites (you heard), ils/elles entendirent (they heard).

For -cer ending verbs a cedille is added to the c before a (except the third person plural)

For -ger ending verbs, e is added after g before a (except the third person plural). Eg:

manger (to eat)
je mangeai (I ate), tu mangeas. il/elle/on mangea, nous mangeames, vous mangeates, ils/elles mangerent.

Where irregular verbs are concerned some take the ending -is, -is, -it, -imes, -ites, -irent whilst others take the endings -us, -us, -ut, -umes, -utes, -urent.

The passe simple of irregular verbs can be derived from their past participle. If the past participle of the verb ends in -i, -is, or -it, the first series of the above endings would be used to form its passe simple. If the past participle of the verb ends in -u, then the second series of endings would be used instead. Eg:

dire (to say)
past participle: dit
je dis, tu dis, il/elle/on dit, nous dimes, vous dites, ils/elles dirent

courir (to run)
past participle: couru
je courus, tu courus, il/elle/on courut, nous courumes, vous courutes, ils/elles coururent

However, it should be noted that the passe simple of certain irregular verbs cannot be derived from their past participle. Eg:

ecrire (to write)
past participle: ecrit
j'ecrivis, tu ecrivis, il/elle/on ecrivit, nous ecrivimes, vous ecrivites, ils/elles ecrivirent

venir (to come)
past participle: venu
je vins, tu vins, il/elle/on vint, nous vinmes, vous vintes, ils/elles vinrent

How can we identify the passe simple? According to Trudie Maria Booth (French Verb Tenses, 2008:147), "If one is familiar with the endings, the verbs in the passe simple are easy to identify, even if the forms are not derived from the past participle. It is evident for example, that mourut comes from mourir and ouvrit comes from ouvrir. Only a few verbs may be difficult to recognize and should therefore be memorized."

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