You may not have run into the French passé simple tense often. It is mostly used in academic writing and very formal speeches, which reflects why it is also sometimes called the “past historic”. The idea is that you are speaking about past events that have no particular relevance to the present (in the speaker or writer’s point of view).
Using Passé Simple
You’re probably not going to have to write this tense on your own very often unless you expect to be communicating in one of the circumstances above. However, you need to be able to recognize it when you do run into it. Notably, some of the conjugations of common verbs look nothing like their roots, and the conjugations in general can look very odd until you are used to seeing them.
We’ll start with the four most common verbs: avoir, être, aller, and faire.
|je fus||nous fûmes|
|tu fus||vous fûtes|
|il fut||ils furent|
|tu eus||vous eûtes|
|il eut||ils eurent|
|tu allas||vous allâtes|
|il alla||ils allèrent|
|je fis||nous fîmes|
|tu fis||vous fîtes|
|il fit||ils firent|
You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of circumflexes (â, î, and û) in these verbs. That is true of the passé simple in general, and it is an easy indicator that if you see a nous or a vous followed by a verb you don’t recognize that has a circumflex in it, it’s probably in this tense.
The two verbs that are easiest in the passé simple to mix up are the conjugations for être and faire. Note that être has the fu– stem, and faire has the fi– stem.
Also, though aller is shown above just to show all four of the common verbs in the same place, it isn’t actually irregular; it follows the same pattern, shown below, that regular -er verbs do.
Passé Simple Conjugation Patterns
There are fortunately fairly comprehensive patterns for most verbs in the passé simple.
The conjugations will usually look relatively normal on the singular side (the je, tu, and il/elle conjugations). The plural side is where things get a little odd-looking.
Regular -er verbs
Drop the -er ending and add:
|je dansai||nous dansâmes|
|tu dansas||vous dansâtes|
|il dansa||ils dansèrent|
Notice the verb endings on the singular side match the singular conjugations for avoir in the present tense, which should make the pattern a little easier to remember, at least on the singular side.
Regular –ir and -re verbs
Both -ir and -re verbs follow the same pattern. Drop the ending and add:
|je choisis||nous choisîmes|
|tu choisis||vous choisîtes|
|il choisit||ils choisirent|
Notice that for regular -ir verbs, the singular side looks exactly like their singular conjugations in present tense, which means three fewer new verb conjugations for you to learn.
|je vendis||nous vendîmes|
|tu vendis||vous vendîtes|
|il vendit||ils vendirent|
Vendre and other regular -re verbs follow this same pattern for regular -ir verb conjugations on the singular side.
Some common verbs that have irregular passé simple forms are:
Irregular verb stems that nevertheless take the normal passé simple –ir/-re endings
- écrire → écriv + normal –ir/-re verb endings
- prendre → pr + normal –ir/-re verb endings
- dire → d + normal –ir/-re verb endings
- voir → v + normal –ir/-re verb endings
- mettre → m + normal –ir/-re verb endings
- venir → vin + normal –ir/-re verb endings (with the exception that the extra i’s are not added: je vins, tu vins, il vint, nous vînmes, vous vîntes, ils vinrent)
Irregular verb stems that follow the pattern with “u’s” based on their past participle forms
- boire → je bus, tu bus, il but, nous bûmes, vous bûtes, ils burent
- devoir → je dus, tu dus, il dut, nous dûmes, vous dûtes, ils durent
- lire → je lus, tu lus, il lut, nous lûmes, vous lûtes, ils lurent
- savoir → je sus, tu sus, il sut, nous sûmes, vous sûtes, ils surent
- vouloir → je voulus, tu voulus, il voulut, nous voulûmes, vous voulûtes, ils voulurent
That should give you a broad understanding of the most common verbs you’re likely to see in passé simple, and if you ever do have to form the tense on your own, you’ve can always check your conjugation with the one of many tools online.