French Language Blog

Le Passé Simple for Regular Verbs Posted by on Mar 28, 2016 in Grammar

Have you ever heard of a French verb tense called “le passé simple”? The preterit, or the simple past, as it is known in English, is used primarily in literature and very formal speech. However, in modern French usage the simple past tense is rarely used and, frankly, going out of style. However, this doesn’t meant that you don’t need to identify it when you see it. If you want to read any French classics in their original language, you should be able to recognize and understand le passé simple.

The simple past is the literary equivalent of passé composé and is used primarily to describe an action that has taken place in a defined past. Like le passé composé, le passé simple can be used with l’imparfait

(the imperfect tense). L’imparfait is the tense that is used to describe an action that began in the past that is ongoing, a repeated or unfinished event, the general atmosphere or mood, or a state of being.

As with the passé composé, regular -er, -ir, or -re verbs are conjugated in the passé simple by dropping the infinitive ending and adding the passé simple endings. Unlike with passé composé, however, you do not need to include a conjugated avoir or être verb before the passé composé verb. With the passé simple, the tense is conveyed in one word.

Here are the passé simple endings for -ir and -re verbs:

je -is

tu -is

il/elle/on -it

nous -îmes

vous -îtes

ils/elles -irent

And here are the passé simple endings for -er verbs:

je -ai

tu -as

il/elle/on -a

nous -âmes

vous -âtes

ils/elles -èrent

As you can see, the nous and vous forms of the passé simple seem a little strange; they don’t resemble any other French verb tense endings. This is very helpful, actually, because it is easy to spot these endings.

Now, let’s use the simple past tense in a sentence:

Nous finîmes nos devoirs (We finished our homework.)

Notice how this tense is different to the regular past tense (passé composé):

Nous avons fini nos devoirs (We finished our homework.)

If you want to combine the simple past with an imperfect verb, you might see something like this:

Quand je suis sorti de l’école, il pleuvait. (When I left school, it was raining.)

Quand je sortis de l’école, il pleuvait. (When I left school, it was raining.)

Note here that the imperfect tense (pleuvait for pleuvoir, to rain) remains the same, while the verb sortir changes depending on whether it is used in the passé simple or the passé composé.

Can you make a sentence where you use a regular form of the simple past alongside the imperfect tense?


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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!