Passé Simple – French Simple Past Posted by Bridgette on Oct 9, 2020 in Grammar
A couple weeks ago I shared with you un conte de fée: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Little Red Riding Hood. I am sure it was easy enough to understand since the story is already widely known, but you may have noticed something odd while reading. Throughout the story you would have seen a different kind of grammatical tense, and that is le passé simple, the simple past.
Let’s look at it again from this short excerpt from the story:
“Ne t’inquiète pas”, dit-elle, “je courrai jusque chez Grand’mère sans m’arrêter.” Petit Chaperon Rouge embrassa sa maman et s’en alla. La petite fille commença son long voyage a travers la forêt.
“Don’t worry”, she said. “I will run to Grandma’s without stopping.” Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother and left. The little girl started her long trip through the forest.
When learning the past tense in French you almost certainly first learned le passé composé, which is a compound tense. As you know, with le passé composé you first need un verbe auxiliaire (auxiliary verb) – either avoir or être, and then you need le participe passé (past participle).
So then why aren’t the above verbs conjugated in le passé composé as such: … a embrassé … est partie … a commencé? Well, if this wasn’t a literary text and instead an oral story or informal letter, it would read exactly like that.
So le passé simple is instead a literary past-tense reserved for formal writing, even children’s stories. Unless you’d like to become a journalist or novelist in French, you most likely will never need to know how to form the le passé simple, but you will need to recognize it in text. So, let’s look at the rules:
Drop the ‘er’ and add the following endings: ai, as, a, âmes, âtes, èrent.
J’aidai Nous aidâmes
Tu aidas Vous aidâtes
Il/Elle aida Ils/Elles aidèrent
IR and RE verbs
Drop the ‘ir’ or ‘re’ and add the following endings: is, is, it, îmes, îtes, irent.
Je finis Nous finîmes
Tu finis Vous finîtes
Il/Elle finit Ils/Elles finirent
Yes, there are irregular verbs even in the past simple. Generally these irregular verb stems will end in ‘i’ or ‘u’ and will add the following endings: s, s, t, ^mes, ^tes, rent.
Here are some irregular verb stems (notice how a lot of them are the past participle of the verb in the passé composé):
avoir (to have): eu-
boire (to drink): bu-
connaître (to know): connu-
construire (to construct): construis-
courir (to run): couru-
craindre (to fear): craigni-
croire (to believe): cru-
devoir (to have to): du-
dire (to say): di-
écrire (to write): écrivi-
être (to be): fu-
faire (to do): fi-
lire (to read): lu-
mettre (to put): mi-
naître (to be born): naqui-
pouvoir (to be able to): pu-
savoir (to know): su-
vivre (to live): vécu-
vouloir (to want): voulu-
Par example here is the passé simple conjugation of être:
Je fus Nous fûmes
Tu fus Vous fûtes
Il/Elle fut Ils/Elles furent
Bonne lecture dans le passé simple tout le monde!
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Good stuff. I’m finally getting serious about using perfective / imperfective correctly in French/Spanish/Russian.
Not sure what to do with French tweets. Could you say more about aspect in French. BTW, I fully do OK in French subjunctive mood, but guess that the mood rarely or never shows up in English translations. Is that true? You may respond in French.