Plus-que-parfait is a very useful tense. It is not the first thing you will learn in your French studies.
However, at some point in your studies, you need to use it in order to express yourself properly.
Let’s begin this article by looking at conjugation.
This process is actually quite easy to understand.
We need to use ”avoir” and ”être” to create the basic form of this tense. In the imperfect tense, do you remember the conjugation of ”avoir” and ”être”?
This is step number 1. The picture represents our stems.
2. Now we need to add the participle. We use the same participle as we do for “le passé compose.” We can pick ”regardé” and ”parti” to serve as examples.
- J’avais regardé= I had watched
- Tu avais regardé= You had watched
- Il/elle/on avait regardé= He/she/it had watched
- Nous avions regardé= We had watched
- Vous aviez regardé= You had watched
- Ils/elles avaient regardé= They had watched
Not that difficult, right?
However, we need to add an important detail for the verbs that use “être” in “le passé composé.”
We have already picked “parti” to serve as an example. Let’s see what it looks like:
- J´étais parti(e)= I had left
- Tu étais parti(e)= You had left
- Il/elle/on était parti(e)= He/she/it had left
- Nous étions parti(e)(s)= We had left
- Vous étiez parti(e)(s)= You had left
- Ils étaient parti(e)(s)= They had left
Ok, for the first 3 rows, we might add an “e.” For the 3 following rows, we can add an “e” and “s.” Why is that?
Do you remember that “être” needs to be adjusted in “le passé compose”?
This rule also holds true for “le-plus-que-parfait.” We need to adjust the participle with regards to:
- The feminine form
- The plural form
The first three rows only include singular objects. Thus, there is no need to add an “s.”
The 3 following rows include plural objects. Thus, we will always add an “s” to parti.” Sometimes, we’ll also add an “e.”
This concept is actually much easier to explain with concrete examples. Let’s go ahead and do that.
We will consider the following factors:
- The masculine form
- The feminine form
- The masculine plural form
- The feminine plural form
What to consider when using the participle “être” for “le-plus-que-parfait”
Let’s continue using the verb “partir,” with the participle “parti,” to serve as an example.
The masculine form:
- Il était parti quand les autres sont venus= He had left when the others arrived.
Look at “parti.” We don’t add anything. Why? The subject is a man, and it’s in the singular form “il.”
The feminine form:
- Elle était partie quand les autres sont venus – She had left when the others arrived.
Now we add an “e.” We must add an “e” because the subject is a woman. She is alone, so we don’t have to add an “s.”
The masculine plural form:
- Ils étaient partis quand leurs amis sont venus – They had left when their friends arrived.
We add an ”s” because now we know that more than one person left “ils.” We don’t add an extra ”e” because at least one man is in the group.
The feminine plural form:
- Elle étaient parties quand leurs amis sont venus – They had left when their friends arrived.
We will add an “e” and an “s” if only women are in a group.
These rules also apply for “être” in “le passé composé.” Thus, learning these rules will help you in more than just this grammatical tense.
There is no difference in pronunciation in the examples above.
Therefore, you don’t have to worry about getting it wrong when speaking French.
This can be comforting to know as these rules take time to understand and master.
When to use
1. The past in the past
Ok, so this sounds rather confusing, right?
It’s much easier to explain this by using an example:
- Il avait fini le jeu quand les autres sont arrivés – He had finished his game when the others arrived.
The translation indicates that the first event took place before the others arrived. We would use the same construction in English.
- Elle voulait voir son chat mais il avait décidé de le lassier à la maison – She wanted to see his cat but he had left it at home.
In this sentence, we can conclude that his decision to leave the cat at home happened before she wanted to see it.
We have used 2 subjects in the examples above. This is, however, not a necessary criterium for using “le-plus-que-parfait.”
Let’s look at two examples where there is only one subject doing something:
- Elle a décidé de retourner dans le pays où elle avais recu sa médaille d’or – She decided to go back to the country where she had won her gold medal.
- Nous avons réutilisés la présentation qu’elle avait créée il y a 5 ans – We reused the presentation that she had created 5 years ago.
What conclusions can we draw from all the examples in this chapter?
One conclusion is that it would be near impossible to express oneself at an advanced level without using “le-plus-que-parfait.”
Like I said before, it is not the first thing you learn. However, as you progress in your studies, it becomes critical.
Let’s continue with more areas of application.
2. Si + le conditionnel passé+ le-plus-que-parfait
This area of application requires 3 different parts.
It can be quite challenging to get it right in the beginning. Thus, don’t worry if you find it complicated .
Si-phrases are important as they help us to make a hypothesis.
- Si j’avais su, je n’aurais pas écrit une excuse – Had I known, I would not have written an excuse.
So, the first part of the sentence is conjugated in “le-plus-que-parfait.” The second part (Je n’aurais pas fait) is conjugated in the conditional tense.
It should be noted that we can change the structure of this phrase:
- Je n’aurais pas écrit une excuse si j’avais su.
This will not change the meaning.
Let’s look at 2 more examples:
- Il serait venu si elle avait envoyé un rappel – He would have arrived if she had sent a reminder.
- Il aurait été heureux si elle avait décidé de rester – He would have been happy if she had decided to stay.
It should be noted again that we could change the structure of these phrases.
It should also be noted that there are two different kinds of conditional tenses.
We are using the past conditional tense. For instance:
- J’aurais fait= He would have made
- Elle aurait écrit= She would have written
The other version of the conditional tense that we have not used in these examples look like this:
- Je ferais = I would do
- Elle serait= She would be
Comment: The past participle (regardé in this case) will not agree in gender and number because the auxiliary is avoir.
Comment: The past participle (partie in this case) will agree in gender and number because the auxiliary is être. In this example, we don’t need to add an s because it’s one person (elle).
Comment: Now we have to add an S in addition to E because we are referring to a group of women (elles).
Comment: Now we only have to add an S because the group includes at least one man (Ils)
Being able to express a negation is an essential part of any tense. But, do you remember what it looks like in the basic present tense? Let’s look at two sentences that will help you to understand the placement:
- Je suis heureux – Je ne suis pas heureux
- Ils vont au parc – Ils ne vont pas au parc
Now we can move on to the placement for le-plus-que-parfait:
- Il avait fait le ménage – Il n’avait pas fait le ménage
- Elle avait créé une presentation – Elle n’avait pas crée une presentation
- Elles avaient terminé la tâche – Elles n’avaient pas terminé la tâche
- Ils étaient arrivés avant les enfants – Ils n’étaient pas arrivés avant les enfants
The placement is quite similar to that of the present tense. You just need to place it before the participle.
You are probably aware of the many different negations. Some of them use the same placement as listed above.
- Ne..jamais: Never
- Ne…rien: Nothing
- Ne…plus: No more, no longer
You can place them in any of the examples above. For instance:
- Il n’avait pas fait le ménage – Il n’avait jamais fait le ménage
Other important negations have a different kind of placement. For instance:
- Ne..aucun(e): No, not any
- Ne..personne: No one
We can look at two phrases with these negations and their placements:
- Elle avait préparé un gâteau – Elle n’avait préparé aucun gâteau
- Il avait trouvé quelqu’un pour l’aider – Il n’avait trouvé personne pour l’aider
In this case, the last part of the negation will be placed after the participle. This is the opposite of the other negations.
I have tried to stick to “le-plus-que-parfait” in this article. However, I have also felt obliged to describe the “le passé composé.”
These tenses have many similarities, and mastering one of them will help you to master the other one.
Don’t feel discouraged if you have a hard time understanding the extra “e” and “s” to emphasize the plural and feminine forms.
Knowledge of the technicalities will come if you stay persistent.