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Passé Simple – French Simple Past Posted by on Oct 9, 2020 in Grammar

Bonjour! 

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 embrasséest partie … a commencéWell, 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:

ER verbs 

Drop the ‘er’ and add the following endings: ai, as, a, âmes, âtes, èrent.

Par example:

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. 

Par example: 

Je finis          Nous finîmes

Tu finis      Vous finîtes

Il/Elle finit          Ils/Elles finirent

Irregular Verbs

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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About the Author: Bridgette

Just your average Irish-American Italo-Francophone. Digital nomad. Gaelophile. Creator of A Polyglot's Inkblot: https://www.apolyglotsinkblot.com


Comments:

  1. Tom Arkwright:

    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.
    Tom


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