When we talk about compound tenses we are referring to tenses that are made with an auxiliary (helping) verb and a past participle. The auxiliary verb would be either avoir or être in a particular tense. For example, we form the perfect tense (the equivalent of saying ‘I have done’ or ‘I did do’ in English) with the present tense of avoir or être plus the past participle of the main verb. I will give a few examples here:
J’ai vu le film. – I saw the film/I have seen the film.
Tu as entendu la chanson. – You heard the song/you have heard the song.
Il a fini son travail. – He finished his work/he has finished his work.
Nous sommes descendus du train. – We got off the train/we have got off the train.
Vous avez bu du vin. – You drank some wine/you have drunk some wine.
Elles se sont assises. – They sat down/they have sat down. (feminine)
Here is a list of verbs that use etre as the auxiliary verb to form compound tenses:
arriver – to arrive
partir – to leave
monter – to go up
descendre – to come down
entrer – to enter
sortir – to go out
naître – to be born
mourir – to die
aller – to go
venir – to come
rester – to stay
tomber – to fall
retourner – to return
Derivatives of these verbs such as revenir (to come back), devenir (to become), and rentrer (to go home) also use être in compound tenses. Added to these, all reflexive verbs use être as their auxiliary verb. Remember that the past participle must agree with the subject when using être as the auxiliary: we added a letter s for a plural subject and a letter e for a feminine subject.
When forming the past participle, for regular verbs with infinitives ending in ‘er’ we remove this ‘er’ ending and replace it by an é with an acute accent. For verbs with infinitives ending in ‘ir’ we remove the final letter r, for example finir, fini. Verbs that have infinitives ending in ‘re’ substitute the ‘re’ for a letter u, e.g., attendre, attendu.
PAST PERFECT or PLUPERFECT TENSE
The past perfect or pluperfect tense is the equivalent of saying in English ‘I had done’ or ‘I did do’. It is used when we are already talking about the past and we refer to something that happened further back in the past. For instance, in English we might say ‘I went out after I had rung you.’ We form this tense with the imperfect tense of the auxiliary verb (avoir or être) followed by the past participle. Here are some examples in sentences:
J’avais agi sans penser. – I had acted without thinking.
Nous croyions que vous aviez vendu la maison. – We thought that you had sold the house.
The pluperfect tense is often used in indirect (reported) speech, when someone is telling someone else what was said originally in the past tense, for example:
Il m’a dit qu’ils avaient attendu pendant une heure. – He told me that they had waited for an hour.
FUTURE PERFECT TENSE
We use the future perfect tense when we say ‘I will have done…’. In English we would often introduce such a sentence by the phrase ‘by the time…’, for example, ‘By the time I get home, the guests will have left.’ In French, however, we would use ‘avant’ (before) rather than ‘by the time’. The future perfect tense is formed with the future tense of the auxiliary verb and the past participle of the main verb.
Mes amis seront partis avant que j’arrive. – My friends will have left by the time (before) I arrive.
Nous aurons vendu la maison avant la fin du mois. – We will have sold the house by the end of the month.
CONDITIONAL PERFECT TENSE
The conditional perfect tense is used when we say ‘I would have done…’ and it is formed in French with the conditional tense of the auxiliary verb and the past participle of the main verb. It is quite common to have a conditional sentence introduced by ‘if’ (‘si’ in French) with the conditional perfect tense in the main clause and the past perfect tense in the ‘if’ clause:
Si j’avais su, j’aurais attendu. – If I had known, I would have waited.
Si nous avions eu des billets, nous serions partis en France. – If we had had tickets, we would have gone to France.
COMPOUND TENSES IN THE NEGATIVE
We put ‘ne’ before the auxiliary verb and ‘pas’ after the auxiliary verb to form the negative of compound tenses. ‘Jamais’ (never) and ‘rien’ (nothing) also follow the auxiliary verb.
Je n’avais pas vendu la voiture. – I hadn’t sold the car.
Tu ne serais jamais venu seul. – You would never have come alone.
Il n’aura rien fait. – He will not have done anything.
Nous n’avions jamais pu supporter le bruit. – We had never been able to put up with the noise.
When using the negative with ‘personne’ (nobody) or ‘aucun’ (not one/not a single), however, ‘ne’ precedes the auxiliary verb and ‘personne’ or ‘aucun’ follow the past participle:
Je n’aurais vu personne. – I wouldn’t have seen anyone.
Nous n’avions vendu aucun livre. – We hadn’t sold a single book.
FORMING QUESTIONS WITH COMPOUND TENSES
It is easy to form questions with compound tenses simply by saying the sentence in the usual way but raising your voice at the end, or by using the phrase ‘est-ce que…’ to introduce the question, for example:
Est-ce que vous aviez attendu longtemps? – Had you waited long?
If, however, we form a question by inversion of the verb and the subject, we treat the auxiliary as the part of the verb to be inverted:
Avais-tu promis de le faire? – Had you promised to do it?
Serez-vous partis avant le soir? – Will you have left by the evening?
Aurions-nous fini s’il nous en avait permis? – Would we have finished if he had allowed us to?
It is of course important to distinguish between the future perfect and conditional perfect tenses as they are quite similar. Learning which verbs take avoir as their auxiliary verb and which take être is also essential.