'Passé Anterieur': An Important French Literary Tense

The anterior past in French literature is like the English past perfect

The French passé antérieur ("anterior past") is the literary and historical equivalent of the past perfect (in French, the plus-que-parfait). It is used in literature, journalism, and historical accounts, for narration, and to indicate an action in the past that occurred before another action in the past.

Because it's a literary tense, you don't need to practice conjugating it, but it is important for you to be able to recognize it.

Le passé antérieur is one of five literary tenses in French. They have virtually disappeared from spoken language, unless the speaker wishes to sound erudite, and so are relegated primary to written text. All five French literary tenses include:

  1. P​assé simple
  2. Passé antérieur
  3. L'imparfait du subjonctif                                        
  4. Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif 
  5. Seconde forme du conditionnel passé

A Formal Compound Tense Like the Past Perfect

The French anterior past is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts:

  1. Passé simple of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être)
  2. Past participle of the main verb

The auxiliary verb is conjugated as if it were being used in the passé simple (aka preterite), which is the literary and historical equivalent of the passé composé.

Like all French compound conjugations, the past anterior can be subject to grammatical agreement:

  • When the auxiliary verb is être, the past participle must agree with the subject.
  • When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle may have to agree with its direct object.

The French anterior past commonly occurs in subordinate clauses and is introduced by one of these conjunctions: après que, aussitôt que, dès que, lorsque, or quand. In this case, the main clause is in the passé simple.

The English equivalent is usually but not always "had" and a past participle.

In everyday speech, the literary past anterior is usually replaced by an everyday tense or mood: either the pluperfect (for habitual actions), the past ​infinitive, or the perfect participle.

Examples of the 'Passé Antérieure'

  • Quand nous eûmes fini, nous mangeâmes. > When we had finished, we ate.
  • Dès qu'elle fut arrivée, le téléphone sonna. > As soon as she arrived, the phone rang.
  • Je partis après que vous fûtes tombé. > I left after you fell.
  • "Le maire et le président lui firent la première visite, et lui de son côté fit la première visite au général et au préfet." (Les Misérables) The mayor and the president were the first to visit him, and he, in turn, was the first to visit the general and the prefect.
  • "Elle rencontra Candide en revenant au château, et rougit ; Candide rougit aussi ; elle lui dit bonjour d’une voix entrecoupée, et Candide lui parla sans savoir ce qu’il disait." (Candide) She met Candide on her way back to the castle and blushed; Candide blushed, too. She said hello with a catch in her voice, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he was saying.
  • Aussitôt que le président eut signé le document, sa secrétaire l'emporta. > As soon as the president had signed the document, his secretary took it away.
  • Quand elle eut publié son premier recueil de poèmes, elle devint un grand succès. > After she had published her first collection of poems, she became a big success.
  • Après qu'elle eut vécu quelques années à Paris, Anne retourna dans son pays d'origine. > After she had lived several years in Paris, Anne returned to home to her country.

How to Conjugate the French Passé Anterieur 

AIMER (auxiliary verb is avoir)
j'eus aimé nouseûmes aimé
tueus aimé vouseûtes aimé
il,
elle 
eut aimé ils,
elles 
eurent aimé
     
DEVENIR (auxiliary verb is être)
jefus devenu(e) nousfûmes devenu(e)s
tufus devenu(e) vousfûtes devenu(e)(s)
ilfut devenu ilsfurent devenus
elle fut devenue ellesfurent devenues
     
SE LAVER (pronominal verb)
jeme fus lavé(e) nousnous fûmes lavé(e)s
tute fus lavé(e) vousvous fûtes lavé(e)(s)
ilse fut lavé ilsse furent lavés
elle se fut lavée ellesse furent lavées