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Learning French in France – The Irregular Verbs for the Past Tense

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Learning French in France - The Irregular Verbs for the Past Tense

If you have reached the point in your French language stay where you are ready to start learning the different tenses (past, present, future) then well done! You are at a wonderful time in your French language development and you are on the verge of a serious breakthrough. When you are learning French in France being able to skip between the tenses gives you such a huge feeling of freedom and can really give you that sense of progression we all crave. One of the different tenses you will be introduced to in your French classes is the ‘passé composé’ (PC) or the ‘perfect tense’ in English. This article is for those who have already been introduced to the concept but may be struggling a little with the irregular verbs and I hope to help you remember all of them with ease.

The PC is made (composed) of an auxiliary verb and a past participle as you will probably have learnt and in general the auxiliary verb is ‘avoir’ in all its various forms but there are several irregular verbs in French which instead adopt the auxiliary verb ‘être’.

The verbs that fall in to this category are:

  1. Naître
  2. Mourir
  3. Décéder
  4. Entrer
  5. Sortir
  6. Arriver
  7. Partir
  8. Venir
  9. Aller
  10. Rester
  11. Passer
  12. Monter
  13. Descendre
  14. Tomber
  15. Revenir
  16. Devenir
  17. Retourner
  18. Rentrer

Alongside this is all the pronominal verbs that operate on themselves:

  • Se laver
  • S’habiller etc.

If you are anything like me you may seen this list a lot but still forget to use the right auxiliary verb from time to time. This is normal and eventually if you stick with your French studies you will get there but if you want a few tactics for remembering the list keep reading.

A good thing to bare in mind is that they all have a relation to coming and going. For some of them the link is a bit loose but you can imagine ‘naître’ (to be born) as arriving on earth.

So there are a few ways of trying to remember this, the first of which is breaking them up and putting them into pairs or trios which they do rather naturally and I have arranged them on the same line above. Some require a bit of imagination but they make sense. Breaking them up in this way makes it a bit more digestible for your mind and eventually when you remember one you will remember the other/others.

Another fantastic way of remembering it is to use “La maison d’être”. This is a little imaginary house which contains all the words that must be made using this form:
– The house has two levels
On the first level we have a huge party and the doorway is getting quite busy. When one person exits or goes out (sortir) another goes into or enters the house (entrer), when one person leaves (partir) another one arrives (arriver), when one person goes (aller) another one comes (venir). Some people liked the party so much that they come back (revenir) they return to the line to get in (retourner) and eventually go back into the house (rentrer). Some people see how busy the party is and pass by (passer).
On the second level a bit of a sombre story unfolds. A baby is born (naître) the grand father running up and down the stairs he so excited. He runs up the stairs (monter) he stays (rester) at the top for a second because he feels odd, then as he goes down the stairs (descendre) he becomes (devenir) pale and falls (tomber) down the stairs. Unfortunately for our imaginary grand dad, he has died (mourir/ décéder).

Sorry it’s a bit glum but it’s only in your mind, also I have heard things that evoke emotional responses actually help you remember more.

So there are some tactics to help you remember that pesky list for your French immersion classes at the French Language School in Montpellier, I hope it’s useful. The main thing is to just practice, practice, practice! If you are living with a French host family try and construct some phrase you would like to say in the past tense that can utilise these irregulars.