Learning French involves grasping various aspects of the language, with French grammar and tenses being the crucial part. The past tense in French can be particularly challenging, as it involves different forms and uses. This guide aims to simplify these concepts, providing clear explanations and examples for each type of past tense in French: passé composé, imparfait, plus-que-parfait, passé simple, and passé antérieur.

Learn French past tense in detail

Types of French Past Tense

You must learn tenses to become good at French. Tenses help you structure your sentences correctly. Below are the types of French past tense along with examples. Observe their patterns carefully and practice them accordingly.

Passé Composé

Auxiliary VerbPast ParticipleExample
avoir (to have)mangé (eaten)J’ai mangé. (I ate)
être (to be)allé(e) (gone)Je suis allé(e). (I went)


  • Completed actions with a definite beginning and end.
Example SentenceTranslation
Hier, j’ai vu un film.Yesterday, I saw a movie.
Nous sommes allés à Paris l’année dernière.We went to Paris last year.


SubjectVerb Stem (e.g., parl-)EndingExample
jeparl--aisJe parlais
tuparl--aisTu parlais
il/elle/onparl--aitIl/elle/on parlait
nousparl--ionsNous parlions
vousparl--iezVous parliez
ils/ellesparl--aientIls/elles parlaient


  • Ongoing, habitual actions or background information.
Example SentenceTranslation
Quand j’étais enfant, je jouais au football tous les jours.When I was a child, I played soccer every day.
Il faisait beau hier.The weather was nice yesterday.
Learn to describe past events in French

Passé Composé vs. Imparfait

Passé ComposéImparfait
Action with a specific timeframeOngoing or habitual actions
Example: Il a plu hier.Example: Il pleuvait souvent.
(It rained yesterday.)(It often rained.)


Auxiliary Verb (Imparfait)Past ParticipleExample
avais (avoir)mangé (eaten)J’avais mangé. (I had eaten)
étais (être)allé(e) (gone)J’étais allé(e). (I had gone)
  • Usage:

Actions completed before another action in the past.

Example SentenceTranslation
Il avait déjà fini ses devoirs quand je suis arrivé.He had already finished his homework when I arrived.
Nous étions déjà partis quand tu as téléphoné.We had already left when you called.

Passé Simple

Regular Verb Ending-er verbs-ir and -re verbs


  • Formal, literary, and historical texts.
Example SentenceTranslation
Il vint, il vit, il vainquit.He came, he saw, he conquered.
La guerre éclata en 1939.The war broke out in 1939.

Passé Antérieur

Auxiliary Verb (Passé Simple)Past ParticipleExample
eus (avoir)mangé (eaten)J’eus mangé. (I had eaten)
fus (être)allé(e) (gone)Je fus allé(e). (I had gone)


  • Similar to plus-que-parfait but used in literary texts.
Example SentenceTranslation
Après qu’il eut terminé, il partit.After he had finished, he left.
Dès que nous fûmes arrivés, nous avons commencé à travailler.As soon as we had arrived, we started working.

You must also learn common French verbs to develop command of French grammar. Mastering these concepts takes time and effort. But a few meaningful and practical tips can help you achieve your desired learning goals.

Practical tips for mastering French past tenses

Practice regularly: Consistent practice with reading, writing, and speaking is essential. Use past tenses in sentences and real-life conversations.

Read extensively: Reading French literature, newspapers, and online articles can help you see past tenses in context.

Read French tenses books

Use flashcards: Create flashcards for different verb conjugations and tenses to reinforce your memory.

Engage with native speakers: If possible, converse with native French speakers. This can significantly improve your understanding and usage of past tenses.

Watch French media: Movies, TV shows, and YouTube channels in French can help you hear how past tenses are used naturally.

Additionally, we recommend that you get a conversational French tutor via italki. Among the many online platforms available, italki is a significant tool for language learners.

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The enrollment process at italki

  • Go to italki
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Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between plus-que-parfait and passé antérieur?

Both tenses describe actions that were completed before another action in the past. However, plus-que-parfait is used in everyday language, while passé antérieur is primarily found in literary and formal texts. Plus-que-parfait is formed using the imparfait of the auxiliary verb (avoir or être) + past participle, whereas passé antérieur uses the passé simple of the auxiliary verb + past participle.

How is the imparfait formed?

Imparfait is formed by dropping the -ons ending from the present tense nous form of the verb and adding the imparfait endings: -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient.

How do I form the passé composé?

Passé composé is formed using the present tense of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être) followed by the past participle of the main verb.


Mastering French past tenses is a crucial step in becoming proficient in the language. By understanding the formation and usage of these tenses, you can effectively communicate past events and actions. Regular practice, reading, and engaging with native speakers are key to mastering these tenses.

Additionally, it is highly recommended that you take detailed online French lessons at italki. These lessons will help you gain fluency quickly. 

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