The passé composé is the most important French past tense, and just to make things interesting, it has three possible English equivalents.
When talking about the past in French, there are two different tenses that work together: the passé composé and the imparfait. Although English has verb forms that appear to be exact equivalents for each of these, they don't quite match up in the two languages. This video will help you understand when, why, and how to use each French tense.
The passé simple is a single-word past tense, equivalent to English's simple past. However, the passé simple is a literary tense and is thus limited to formal writing, such as literature (including children's books), journalism, and historical accounts.
As its name so usefully suggests, the passive infinitive construction is used when the infinitive has a passive role, rather than an active one, as in livres à vendre - "books for sale."
As seen in this sentence, the passive voice is used to indicate that something is being done to a subject by an agent. It's passive because the subject is being acted upon, rather than acting as in the active voice.
The past anterior is the literary equivalent of the past perfect and is usually preceded by a conjunction such as après que or quand.
To give an order for something to be done before something else or by a certain time, you can use the French past imperative.
When one thing happens before another, you can use the French past infinitive to talk about the earlier action. In English, the past infinitive is very stilted, so it's usually loosely translated into more idiomatic phrasing.
The past participle is essential in the creation of compound verb tenses/moods and the passive voice, and it can also be used as an adjective.
The past perfect, also called the pluperfect, is a verb tense that distinguishes between two related things that happened in the past, indicating which one occurred before the other. The use of the past perfect is very similar in French and English.
The past subjunctive is the past tense of the subjunctive mood. The exact same verbs, expressions, and conjunctions that call for the subjunctive in the present require the past subjunctive in reference to subjectivity about something that happened in the past.
When one thing leads to another, you can use the French perfect participle (e.g., ayant mangé, étant parti) to talk about the first action. In English, this construction is very stilted, so it's usually loosely translated into more idiomatic phrasing.
The name might be scary but the grammar is easy: a periphrastic tense is a verbal construction consisting of a specific semi-auxiliary verb plus an infinitive. These verbal phrases offer additional nuance to the normal range of verb tenses.
The rarest French verb form is the pluperfect subjunctive. It's a literary tense, meaning that it's reserved for formal, written French - mainly literature, but also history and journalism.
The French present participle, which always ends in -ant, may be used as a verb, gerund, noun, or adjective. Structurally, French present participles are equivalent to "verb + ing" in English, but grammatically there are many differences between them.