French Literary Tenses

Temps littéraires

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There are five French past tenses that are not used in spoken French. They are called literary or historical tenses because they are reserved for written French, such as

  • Literature
  • Journalism
  • Historical texts
  • Narration

At one time, literary tenses were used in spoken French, but they have gradually disappeared. When they are used, they raise the speaker's register to an extremely refined (some might even say snobbish) level of French. They may also be used for humorous effect. For example, in the French movie Ridicule, the aristocracy use literary tenses in their word games, in order to make themselves sound more educated and refined.

Each of the literary tenses has a non-literary equivalent; however, there are subtle nuances that are lost when using the equivalents. Most of these nuances don't exist in English, so I explain the difference in my lessons.

Because literary tenses are not used in spoken French, you need to be able to recognize them, but you will most likely never need to conjugate them. Even in written French, most of the literary tenses are disappearing. The passé simple is still used, but the others are often replaced by their spoken equivalents or by other verbal constructions. Some say that the disappearance of literary tenses leaves gaping holes in the French language - what do you think?

Literary tenses are not used in spoken French - they have non-literary equivalents, explained here. For a definition of literary tenses and a description of where/when they are used, please read the introduction.

Click the name of each literary tense to learn more about to conjugate and use it.

I. Passé simple

The passé simple is the literary simple past tense. Its English equivalent is the preterite or simple past.
Il choisit.- He chose.
The spoken French equivalent is the passé composé - the English present perfect.
Il a choisi. - He has chosen.

You can see that by not using the passé simple and the passé composé together, the French language has lost the nuance between "he chose" and "he has chosen." The passé simple indicates an action that is complete and has no relationship to the present, whereas using the passé composé indicates a relationship with the present.

II. Passé antérieur

The passé antérieur is the literary compound past tense.

Quand il eut choisi, nous rîmes. - When he had chosen, we laughed.

Its equivalent in spoken French is the plus-que-parfait (the English pluperfect or past perfect).

Quand il avait choisi, nous avons ri. - When he had chosen, we laughed.

The passé antérieur expresses an action that took place right before the action in the main verb (expressed by the passé simple). Aside from being extremely rare in spoken French, the passé antérieur is even disappearing in written French, as it can be replaced by several different constructions (see the lesson on the past anterior for more information).

III. Imparfait du subjonctif*

The imparfait du subjonctif is the literary simple past subjunctive.
J'ai voulu qu'il choisît. - I wanted him to choose. (I wanted that he chose)

Its spoken French equivalent is the present subjunctive.
J'ai voulu qu'il choisisse. - I wanted him to choose. (I wanted that he choose)

The distinction lost here is this: by using the imperfect subjunctive in French, both the main clause (I wanted) and the subordinate clause (that he chose) are in the past, whereas in the spoken French, the subordinate clause is in the present (that he choose).

IV. Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif*

The plus-que-parfait du subjonctif is the literary compound past subjunctive.
J'aurais voulu qu'il eût choisi. - I would have wanted him to choose.
(I would have wanted that he had chosen)

Its spoken French equivalent is the past subjunctive.

   J'aurais voulu qu'il ait choisi. - I would have wanted him to choose.
   (I would have wanted that he has chosen)

This distinction is even more subtle, and is a combination of the passé composé and imparfait du subjonctif nuances: by using the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif, the action is in the remote past and has no relationship to the present (that he had chosen), whereas using the past subjunctive indicates a slight relationship with the present (that he has chosen).

V. Seconde forme du conditionnel passé

The conditional perfect, second form, is the literary conditional past.

   Si je l'eus vu, je l'eusse acheté. - If I had seen it, I would have bought it.

Its spoken French equivalent is the conditional perfect.

   Si je l'avais vu, je l'aurais acheté. - If I had seen it, I would have bought it.

The use of the second form of the conditional perfect emphasizes the fact that I didn't buy it, whereas the non-literal conditional perfect makes it sound more like a opportunity that just happened to be missed.

*The English equivalents for these two literary tenses are unhelpful, because English rarely uses the subjunctive. I gave the literal, ungrammatical English translation in parentheses simply to give you an idea of what the French structure is like.

Literary tense Literary tense classification Non-literary equivalent
passé simple simple past passé composé
passé antérieur compound past plus-que-parfait
imparfait du subjonctif simple past subjunctive subjonctif
plus-que-parfait du subjonctif compound past subjunctive subjonctif passé
2e forme du conditionnel passé conditional past conditionnel passé

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Team, ThoughtCo. "French Literary Tenses." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). French Literary Tenses. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "French Literary Tenses." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).