The passé simple (simple past, historical past) is a verb tense used mainly in written French, for literary and historical material. It may also be heard during a formal speech. It is the equivalent of the passé composé, used to recount a specific action in the past. When relating events, quality newspapers use the passé simple forrefinement. Scandal sheets will often use it to convey a sense of drama. When reading French literature of all periods, you will need to recognize the passé simple to get a full appreciation of the text.
Formation of the passé simple
The passé simple of regular -er verbs is formed by adding the endings -ai, -as, -a, -âmes, -âtes, -èrent to the infinitive stem.
répéter - to repeat
je répétai - I repeated
tu repeats - you repeated
il/elle repeat - he/she repeated
nous répétâmes - we repeated
vous répétâtes - you repeated
ils/elles répétèrent - they repeated
Verbs like commencer and manger have a spelling change. When the passé simple ending starts with -a, use the cedilla (ç) for verbs ending in -cer and add an extra -e- for verbs ending in -ger.
Elle prononça un discours.
She made a speech.
Je remplaçai le comédien malade.
I replaced the sick actor.
Il partagea sa fortune.
He shared his fortune.
Nous déménageâmes de nombreuses fois.
We moved many times.
The passé simple of regular -ir and -re verbs like partir (to leave) and répondre(to answer) is formed by adding the endings -is, -is, it, -îmes, -îtes, -irent to the infinitive stem.
Partir - to leave
je partis - I left
tu partis - you left
il/elle partit - he/she left
nous partîmes we left
vous partîtes you left
ils/elles partirent they left
répondre - to answer
je répondis - I answered
tu répondis - you answered
il/elle répondit - he/she answered
nous répondîmes - we answered
vous répondîtes - you answered
ils/elles répondirent - theyanswered
Avoir (to have) and être (to be) are irregular in the passé simple.
avoir - to have
j’eus - I had
tu eus - you had
il/elle eut - he/she had
nous eûmes we had
vous eûtes you had
ils/elles eurent they had
être - to be
je fus - I was
tu fus - you were
il/elle fut - he/she was
nous fûmes - we were
vous fûtes - you were
ils/elles furent - they were
On frappa à la porte et il se leva.
Someone knocked on the door and he got up.
Il fut surpris par notre réaction.
He was surprised by our reaction.
Ils répondirent immédiatement à notre lettre.
They answered our letter immediately.
Elles partirent aussitôt après le discours.
They left right after the speech.
The passé simple of irregular verbs
Other verbs have an irregular passé simple. For some verbs the stem of the passé simple is based on the past participle, but this is not a fixed rule.Here are some of the irregular verbs in the passé simple that will let you start right in reading French newspapers or novels.It is especially useful to learn the third-person singular and plural forms.