The passé simple is a unique tense in the French language. Perhaps one or two centuries ago, it was commonly used like the simple past in English. For example:
- J’allai au magasin.
I went to the store.
- Je couru deux kilometres.
I ran two kilometers.
The passé simple is similar to the simple past in English in that it condenses the past tense into a single word, instead of using two parts. But with the passage of time, language changes. The passé simple fell into disuse in spoken French, in favor of the passé composé and the imparfait.
But in writing, authors still preferred using the passé simple to speak about the past. In effect, it became a literary tense. In modern times, authors are beginning to use it less frequently to make their writing sound more like everyday spoken language.
But many important works through the mid to late 20th century still use the passé simple. Want to read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous Le Petit Prince in its original form, for example? You’ll need to be able to recognize the passé simple.
Conjugating Regular Verbs in The Passé Simple
For regular verbs, formation of the passé simple is not too difficult. Like other verbal forms, remove the ending (-er, –ir, and –re) and add the appropriate endings. See below for an example of an –er verb, an –ir verb, and an –re verb.
Conjugating Irregular Verbs in Le Passé Simple
Beyond these basic forms, irregular verbs also have irregular roots. It is helpful to think of the accent circonflex (^) as being the first reliable part of the ending, and the vowel upon which it sits as being sometimes determined by the vowel patterns of the verb itself. For example, for the verb avoir (to have), in the past tense is j’ai eu. The past participle eu comes back as the root for the passé simple, and the circonflex sits nicely on the “u.”
J’ → eus
Tu → eus
Il/elle/on → eut
Nous → eûmes
Vous → eûtes
Ils/elles → eurent
The roots for most irregular verbs, however, do come back in some form or another in one of the verb’s other tenses, or looks similar in some way. Here are the roots for some irregular verbs in French:
aller (to go) → all-
pouvoir (to be able) → pu-
connaitre (to be familiar with) → connu-
devoir (to have an obligation), → du-
naître (to be born) → naqu-
savoir (to know) → su-
venir (to come) → vin-
tenir (to hold) → tin-
The Verb Être
Probably one of the most difficult verbs to recognize in the passé simple is the verb être. However, it is also one of the most common and most easily recognizable. Its conjugation is as follows:
Je → fus
Il → fut
Nous → fûmes
Vous → fûtes
Ils → furent
Time to Practice!
Many teachers will tell you that the most important thing to master about the passé simple is recognition. For everyday, common usage of French, that is true.
To take yourself to another level, however, try to master its usage, as well. Here are a few exercises to begin your practice. For the sake of simplicity, conjugate each verb in the passé simple; don’t worry about other past tenses for now.
1) Nous ________ (être) au parc.
We were at the park.
2) Tu ________ (avoir) cinq ans.
You were five years old.
3) Tu ________ (tenir) la main de ta soeur, la soeur qui ________ (être) aussi ta meilleure amie.
You held your sister’s hand, the sister who was also your best friend.
4) Nos parents ________ (parler) de leur propres enfances innocents.
Our parents spoke of their own innocent childhoods.
5) Ils ________ (finir) leur conversation et un coup de tonnerre ________ (éclater).
They finished their conversation and a clap of thunder struck.
6) Trop tôt, il ________ (être) temps de rentrer.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Check your conjugations below:
3) tenis, fut
5) finirent, éclata
Did you do all right? Now try creating some of your own.
Want to learn more about the passé simple? Taking lessons with a private instructor is a great way to master new topics of the French language. Search for your French tutor today!
Photo by Luke Ma