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I'm only just starting to learn French and I'm having trouble understanding the conjugation of "être" and "donner" in the passé composé. I usually look up words in Collins dictionary online but I find there the following information which confuses me:

j'ai été
tu as été
il/elle a été
nous avons été
vous avez été
ils/elles ont été

The same pattern is used to conjugate "donner".

I wonder shouldn't it be rather like this?

elle a étée
nous avons étés
vous avez étés
elles ont étées

In analogy with how the past participle of "aller" conjugates (this is found in the same dictionary):

je suis allé
tu es allé
il/elle est allé/allée
nous sommes allés
vous êtes allés
ils/elles sont allés/allées

Are été and donné some kind of exceptions?

Thank you in advance!

7

The auxiliary used for the verb être is avoir. Like for all other verbs that use avoir as an auxiliary the agreement of the past-participle is done with the direct object (only if it appears before the verb).

Elle a pleuré. (no direct object)
Ils ont posé des questions. (direct object after the verb)
Les questions qu'ils ont posées. (direct object before the verb)

For aller the auxiliary is être, and in this case the agreement is done with the subject.

Elle est allée dans le jardin.
Ils sont venus rapidement.

  • Thank you for the answer! Just to make the usage before "avoir" totaly clear for me (your third example sentence), if it were "La question" you would not change the verb, right? It would be "La question qu'ils ont posé"? – Yaroslav Fomenko Dec 15 '15 at 15:35
  • @Yaroslav: La question qu'ils ont posée. It's now singular but still feminine. – Stéphane Gimenez Dec 15 '15 at 15:37
5

French uses two auxiliaries for its compound tenses : être and avoir.
être is mostly associated with intransitive verbs, and all reflexive constructions:

  • Paul est parti ('Paul has left') intransitive
  • Paul s'est vu dans le miroir ('Paul saw himself in the mirror') reflexive

avoir is mostly associated with transitive verbs (and never used in reflexive constructions)

  • Paul a mangé ('Paul ate') lexically transitive verb
  • Paul a été brave ('Paul was brave') être selects avoir as an auxiliary even though it is not a transitive verb...

Now for the past participle agreement, French has only 3 cases:

  1. Reflexive constructions behave exactly as if they selected avoir
  2. with the être selection, the past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject argument
  3. with the avoir selection, the past participle can agree in gender and number with the direct object if it is placed before the participle and it is not the clitic pronoun en

Examples:

  • être agreement with the subject
    • Paul est mort vs Marie est morte vs elles sont mortes
    • il est arrivé vs ils sont arrivés vs elle est arrivée vs elles sont arrivées
  • avoir agreement with the direct object on the left (except en)
    • Marie a mangé des pommes and Marie a mis des robes rouges
      direct object on the right => default agreement: M.SG
    • Marie en a mangé and Marie en a mis des rouges (*mises)
      direct object = en => default agreement: M.SG
    • Les pommes que Marie a mangées étaient bonnes and les robes que Marie a mises étaient jolies
      direct object on the left => agreement in gender and number with the object: F.PL
  • reflexive and reciprocal constructions => same as avoir
    • Marie s'est écrit un post-it
      direct object = un post-it direct object on the right => default agreement: M.SG
    • Marie s'en est mis sur le col
      direct object = en => default agreement: M.SG
    • Marie s'est vue dans le miroir
      direct object = se
      direct object on the left => agreement in gender and number with the object: F.SG
    • Les roses que Marie s'est offertes sont jolies direct object = les roses direct object on the left => agreement in gender and number with the object: F.PL

As mentioned by @Sifu, these are the rules for formal written French. Colloquially speaking the agreement is welcome but not realized with avoir most of the time. The proportion tends to be higher with être. In very formal context, some people tend to use what we could call hyper-corrected French and make mistaken agreements even with the en clitic...

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Actually it depends on the auxiliary verb.

  • When you use "être" the past participle varies in terms of gender and number.
  • With "avoir" the past participle is invariable.

Source (la-conjugaison.nouvelobs.com) : être, avoir

  • Merci beaucoup! – Yaroslav Fomenko Dec 15 '15 at 15:25
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    Actually, the past participle is variable with Avoir. Only on some circonstences. – Sifu Dec 15 '15 at 15:29
  • @Sifu: Is it the case that Stéphane illustrates with "Les questions qu'ils ont posées." ? – Yaroslav Fomenko Dec 15 '15 at 15:37
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    @YaroslavFomenko You should really only worry about the rules that Stéphane stated, yes. There are precise rules and exceptions on that subject, but most of us, French natives, don't even half of them correctly. – Sifu Dec 15 '15 at 15:47
  • @Sifu: Thank you! – Yaroslav Fomenko Dec 15 '15 at 17:46

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