French Language Blog

Le Passé Simple for Irregular French Verbs Posted by on Apr 4, 2016 in Grammar

Last week, I introduced the simple past tense and showed you how to conjugate regular French verbs in this literary tense. However, as you probably know … not all French verbs are regular. In fact, many verbs are conjugated irregularly in French. Today, we will go over these difficult irregular verbs in the past simple tense. It is not too important that you learn the forms of all of these irregular verbs, but rather that you can identify them while reading.

For many passé simple verbs, the verb stem (which you will add verb endings to) itself is irregular. This is important: In passé simple (as in many other French tenses), you can have an irregular stem, irregular endings, or both. This sounds somewhat confusing, so let’s clarify:

The stem of a French verb is the basic form that you use before adding on verb endings. This verb stem changes depending not only what verb you are using, but also what tense you are using. For example: the present tense stem of parler (speak) is parl (you get this by taking off the -er ending). The present tense stem of finir (to end) is fin (you get this stem by removing the -ir ending). In present tense, some stems are already irregular. For example, the stem of boire (to drink) is buv. All of this is to say that you can isolate the stem of a regular verb by taking the infinitive of that verb and removing the ending. With irregular verb stems, which are used with many common verbs in the simple past tense, you cannot determine the stem in this way. Rather, you just need to memorize the stems of these common simple past stems.

However, there is a trick. For many irregular verb stems in the past simple tense, the stem actually comes from the past participle used in the passé composé (particularly if the past participle ends in -u). For example: the simple past stem of the verb avoir (to have) is eu-. Eu is the past participle of avoir–as in, j’ai eu (“I had”). The same applies to the simple past stem of boire, which becomes bu-. For these verbs, you add the following simple past irregular endings:

je -s

tu -s

il/elle/on -t

nous -ˆmes

vous -ˆtes

ils/elles -rent

Unfortunately, you cannot guess every irregular simple past verb using this trick. Many common verb stems you’ll just have to memorize in order to recognize the simple past. These irregular verb stems in the simple past include:

souffrir (to suffer) souffr-

tenir (to hold) tin-

traduire (to translate) traduisi-

venir (to come) vin-

être (to be) fu-

Next week, we’ll look at examples of these conjugated simple past verbs in sentences (and paragraphs). For now, start to become familiar with the stems and experiment with guessing some of the irregular verb stems in the past simple tense (and remember to use the -u rule above!).


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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!