In our first four lessons on the passé composé, we focused on the conjugation of all three major verb groups:
In addition to having different endings, past participles have one more trick up their sleeves… agreement! Verbs from all three groups can take masculine, feminine, and plural endings. All verbs in the past tense have past participles that follow two sets of agreement rules depending on which auxiliary they take. Verbs conjugated with the auxiliary avoir (to have) will follow one set of rules, and those that go with être (to be) will follow another. In this lesson, we'll focus on verbs conjugated with avoir.
If a direct object comes before the verb, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the direct object. If the direct object comes after the verb, no agreement is necessary.
In the example below, the direct object mes clés (my keys) comes after the past participle vu (seen), so no agreement is necessary.
As-tu vu mes clés quelque part?
Have you seen my keys somewhere?Play Caption
A direct object answers the question “what”: Have you seen what? Mes clés (my keys).
But in the answer to that question, the direct object pronoun comes before the verb and thus has to agree with the past participle.
Non, je ne les ai vues nulle part.
No, I haven't seen them anywhere.Play Caption
Les (them), standing for les clés (the keys), comes before the past participle vu (seen). So, agreement is necessary, and vu becomes vues to agree with the feminine plural noun clés. You just add -es to make vu feminine and plural, as you would do with an adjective agreement.
Note that, unlike in English, direct (and indirect) object pronouns are always placed before the verb in French. So be on the lookout for pronouns in compound tenses!
In the passé composé, only direct object pronouns such as la (her, it) agree with the past participle, whereas indirect ones such as lui (to him, to her) do not. So make sure you know the difference between a direct and indirect object pronoun!
When a verb is normally followed by the preposition à (to) as in téléphoner à (to call/telephone), it takes an indirect object, which you can replace with an indirect object pronoun such as lui (to him, to her).
Et ta sœur, tu lui as téléphoné pour son anniversaire?
And your sister, did you call her for her birthday?
No agreement is necessary because lui (to her) is an indirect object pronoun, so you don’t need to add an -e to téléphoné even though the pronoun is feminine.
You might be tempted to say tu l'as téléphonée, but in French we say "to call/telephone to someone." It goes to show you can’t always rely on English to decide whether a verb takes an indirect object or not.
Recognizing and knowing when to use a direct and indirect object will come in handy when you use a combination of direct and indirect object pronouns before a past participle. You will be able to tell which pronoun agrees with the verb. In the example below, the direct object pronoun la (it) is followed by the indirect pronoun lui (to her) in the phrase la lui a donnée (gave it to her). (The direct object pronoun always comes first.)
Et la bague pour sa petite amie? Il la lui a donnée hier.
And the ring for his girlfriend? He gave it to her yesterday.
The past participle becomes donnée (gave) with an -e at the end to agree with the direct object pronoun la (it), which stands for the feminine singular noun la bague (the ring).
The same agreement rules apply when we use the relative pronoun que (that) instead of a direct object pronoun:
La bague qu’il lui a offerte est très jolie.
The ring that he gave her is very pretty.
Que (that) is the relative pronoun that stands for la bague (the ring), which agrees with offerte (gave, offered). Don’t forget to pronounce the “t” in offerte! And note that the relative pronoun que is not optional in French, unlike "that" in English.
Now let's see what happens when you add another complication to the scenario… an infinitive! This rule is what the French might call un casse-tête (a brainteaser or a headache), so buckle up!
When a past participle is followed by an infinitive verb, as in entendu chanter (heard singing), the past participle agrees with the direct object if the direct object performs the action expressed by the infinitive. Or looking at it from an English speaker’s perspective, a past participle followed by an infinitive in French is the equivalent of “to see/hear somebody do/doing something." French uses an infinitive for the second verb.
C’est la chanteuse que j’ai entendue chanter hier.
She’s the singer whom I heard sing/singing yesterday.
What I heard was la chanteuse (the singer) chanter (singing). La chanteuse performs the action of the infinitive chanter. So the past participle entendue has to agree with chanteuse.
On the other hand, when you see or hear something being done, the past participle doesn’t change. In this type of sentence construction, the infinitive in French is the equivalent of a passive verb in English:
C'est la chanson que j'ai entendu chanter.
It's the song that I heard being sung.
A song can’t do its own singing, so the direct object la chanson (the song) is clearly not performing the action of the infinitive chanter, which is then translated in the passive voice (sung) in English. In this case, no agreement rule applies.
Stay tuned for our next lesson, which will focus on agreement in verbs conjugated with être in the passé composé.