When do I add agreements to the past participle (and what are they)?

First, the "what" question. When we say that the past participle "agrees", we mean that, just like a normal adjective, it changes its form depending on whether it is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.

Form of past participle agreements

Agreements in writing

In the written form, the endings are basically simple and the same as for normal adjectives:

SingularPlural
Masculine--s
Feminine-e-es

So, for example, the feminine form of tombé (fallen) is tombée; the plural form of allé is allés. As you might expect, we don't add another -s if the past participle already ends in -s. So the past participle of s'asseoir (to sit down) remains assis in the masculine plural (though in the feminine singular and plural it becomes assise and assises respectively).

Agreements in speech

In speech, things are simpler than in the written form. This is because:

  • The plural -s is never pronounced;
  • The feminine ending -e only changes the pronunciation if the basic form of the past participle ends in a consonant and...
  • ...not that many past participles end in a consonant and...
  • ...those that do generally take avoir (so generally don't need an agreement).

So basically, it's good news as far as the spoken language is concerned. In everyday spoken French, past participles rarely change their pronunciation. At GCSE level, the main past participle to remember that changes its pronunciation is in fact that of the reflexive verb s'asseoir (to sit down), which goes assis > assise. The final 's' is not pronounced in the masculine form, but is pronounced (as a z sound) in the feminine.

When to add a past participle agreement

The short answer to the "when" question is:

  • The past participle usually agrees when the verb takes être;
  • The past participle rarely agrees when the verb takes avoir

That's the short answer. The slightly longer answer is:

  • When the verb takes être, the past participle agrees with the subject.
  • When the verb takes avoir, the past participle generally doesn't agree with anything.
  • In writing (and so sometimes formal speech), the past participle agrees with the direct object when that direct object comes before the past participle. We'll see some examples below.
  • When the verb is a reflexive verb, the past participle agreement is the same as for verbs taking avoir. But as we'll see, for most reflexive verbs, you can actually think of the past participle as agreeing with the subject.

Verbs taking être

These are the simplest case. With normal (i.e. non-reflexive) verbs that take être, the past participle always agrees with the subject. So:

il est parti
he has left
elle est partie
she has left
ils sont partis
they (masc) have left
elles sont parties
they (fem) have left

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Note that none of the verbs in this category (except éclore > éclos) have past participles ending in a consonant. In other words, the 'agreement' of these verbs applies basically to the written language only.

Agreement with avoir

Generally, the past participle doesn't agree with anything when avoir is used. For example, in the following sentence, the subject is feminine plural and the direct object (des cadeaux) is masculine plural, but no agreement is added to the past participle acheté:

les filles ont acheté des cadeaux
the girls bought some presents
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However, when the direct object comes before the past participle, the past participle actually agrees with that direct object. So for example:

Voici les cadeaux que les filles ont achetés
Here are the presents that the girls have bought
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In the above sentence, achetés is written with an -s to agree with the direct object les cadeaux.

Note that the direct object could be a pronoun:

Il me les a achetés hier
He bought them for/from me yesterday
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In such cases, you need to be careful to note which pronoun is the direct object pronoun: i.e. which pronoun represents "the thing being bought" etc.

The spoken language

In this case, you can get past participles ending in a consonant that change their pronunciation. For example:

Voici la chanson qu'il a écrite
Here is the song that he has written
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However, in reality, speakers don't tend to add agreements with avoir in everyday speech. Arguably, it is only when they are speaking carefully and thinking about the written language that they make these agreements when speaking. So unless they were reading from a script, people would generally say:

Voici la chanson qu'il a écrit
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Agreement with reflexive verbs

With reflexive verbs, the general pattern is that the past participle agrees with the subject of the verb:

il s'est habillé
he got dressed
elle s'est habillée
she got dressed
ils se sont ennuyés
they got bored
les filles se sont regardées
the girls looked at one another
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The spoken language

The most common reflexive verb where the past participle could change its pronunciation is s'asseoir > elle s'est assise. In most other common reflexive verbs, the past participle ends in a vowel. So for example in elle s'est habillée, the extra -e does not change the pronunciation.

Reflexive verbs with a direct object

N.B.: This section will be of more interest to advanced learners of French.

In the previous section, we stated that the past participle agrees with the subject of reflexive verbs. But actually, we could say that it agrees with the direct object, since the whole point of a reflexive verb is that the subject and object are essentially "the same thing". So in a case such as:

elles se sont habillées
they (fem) got dressed

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we could really argue that habillée is feminine plural because the subject elles is feminine plural, or because the direct object se is feminine plural. It makes no difference to the end result.

In fact, saying that the past participle agrees with the direct object turns out to be a better explanation. It's better because then the same rule explains what happens for some rarer cases of reflexive verbs where the reflexive pronoun isn't actually the direct object.

There are some cases of reflexive verbs where the reflexive pronoun actually represents an indirect object, generally with the sense of "to myself", to himself", "of himself" etc. For example:

elle s'est préparé des pâtes
she cooked herself some pasta
elle s'est cassé la jambe
she broke her leg
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In these cases, the reflexive pronoun isn't the direct object. In the first sentence, the thing being prepared is les pâtes; in the second case, the thing being broken is la jambe. And in these cases, there's no agreement on the past participle.

However, if in these cases the direct object is placed before the verb, then the past participle agrees with that direct object:

quelle jambe s'est-il cassée?
which leg did he break?
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So in this case, la jambe comes before the verb and so the past participle is feminine, even though the subject, il, is masculine.

In other words, the past participle agreement of reflexive verbs actually works as though the verb was conjugated with avoir! The past participle agrees with the direct object, provided that it comes before the verb.

The spoken language

We noted that in everyday speech, native French speakers don't tend to make past participle agreements with avoir in cases where in formal writing they are the norm. The same is true of reflexive verbs. So for example, the formal written form of this sentence has a past participle agreement with the direct object:

Voici les lettres qu'ils se sont écrites
Here are the letters that they wrote to each other
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But in everyday speech it would be common to say:

Voici les lettres qu'ils se sont écrit

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with no change in pronunciation to the past participle.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.