The French Past Tense, or Passé Simple

Past tenses in French
ThoughtCo / Claire Cohen

The passé simple, translated in English as either "simple past" or "preterite," is the literary equivalent of the passé composé, which means that it is used only in formal writing (like historical and literary writing) and very formal speech. In such writing and speech, the passé simple is used alongside the imperfect, just as in everyday speech/writing, the passé composé and imperfect are used together.

You will probably never need to actually use the passé simple, but it is important to recognize it, especially if you read in French a lot (fiction or nonfiction). Fortunately, the passé simple is very easy to recognize. If a verb looks "weird" to you, chances are it's the passé simple.

How to Conjugate the Passé Simple

The"passé simple of regular verbs is formed by dropping the infinitive ending and adding the passé simple endings.

Notes:

  1. -ER verbs take the first set of endings
  2. -IR and -RE take the second set of endings
  3. Spelling change verbs, like manger and lancer, have their spelling change in most forms of the passé simple.
  4. Irregular verbs at the bottom have irregular stems in the passé simple, but take the same endings as regular -IR/-RE verbs.
ER endingsparler: parl-manger: mang-lancer: lanc-
je-aiparlaimangeailançai
tu-asparlasmangeaslanças
il-aparlamangealança
nous-âmesparlâmesmangeâmeslançâmes
vous-âtesparlâtesmangeâteslançâtes
ils-èrentparlèrentmangèrentlancèrent
IR/RE endingsfinir: fin-rendre: rend-voir: v-
je-isfinisrendisvis
tu-isfinisrendisvis
il-itfinitrenditvit
nous-îmesfinîmesrendîmesvîmes
vous-îtesfinîtesrendîtesvîtes
ils-irentfinirentrendirentvirent
Irregular verbs
s'asseoirs'ass-mettrem-
conduireconduis-naîtrenaqu-
dired-peindrepeign-
écrireécriv-prendrepr-
fairef-rirer-
joindrejoign-voirv-

Conjugate Irregular Verbs in the Passé Simple

Most irregular verbs with a past participle that ends in -u use that past participle as the passé simple stem. These verbs and their stems are:

  • avoir: eu-
  • boire: bu-
  • connaître: connu-
  • courir: couru-
  • croire: cru-
  • devoir: du-
  • falloir: fallu-
  • lire: lu-
  • pleuvoir: plu-
  • pouvoir: pu-
  • recevoir: reçu-
  • savoir: su-
  • valoir: valu-
  • vivre: vécu-
  • vouloir: voulu-

Three verbs have irregular stems, but take the same endings as the above verbs:

  • être: fu-
  • mourir: mouru-
  • venir: vin-

The passé simple endings for irregular verbs are as follows:

  • je: -s
  • tu: -s
  • il: -t
  • nous: -^mes
  • vous: -^tes
  • ils: -rent

Here are a few irregular French verbs conjugated into the passé simple:

avoir: eu-

  • j'eus
  • tu eus
  • il eut
  • nous eûmes
  • vous eûtes
  • ils eurent

être: f-

  • je fus
  • tu fus
  • il fut
  • nous fûmes
  • vous fûtes
  • ils furent

mourir: mouru-

  • je mourus
  • tu mourus
  • il mourut
  • nous mourûmes
  • vous mourûtes
  • ils moururent

venir: vin-

  • je vins
  • tu vins
  • il vint
  • nous vînmes
  • vous vîntes
  • ils vinrent