The passé simple

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.

boire (to drink)

il/elle but -  he/she drank

ils/elles burent  - they drank

conduire (to drive)

il/elle conduisit -  he/she drove

ils/elles conduisirent - they drove

connaître (to know)

il/elle connut  - he/she knew

ils/elles connurent  - they knew

convaincre (to convince)

il/elle convainquit  - he/she convinced

ils/elles convainquirent  - they convinced

courir (to run)

il/elle courut  - he/she ran

ils/elles coururent  - they ran

couvrir (to cover)

il/elle couvrit -  he/she covered

ils/elles couvrirent -  they covered

craindre (to fear)

il/elle craignit -  he/she feared

ils/elles craignirent  - they feared

croire (to believe)

il/elle crut  - he/she believed

ils/elles current -  they believed

devoir (to have to)

il/elle dut -  he/she had to

ils/elles durent -  they had to

écrire (to write)

il/elle écrivit  - he/she wrote

ils/elles écrivirent -  they wrote

éteindre (to turn off [the light])

il/elle éteignit -  he/she turned off

ils/elles éteignirent -  they turned off

faire (to do)

il/elle fit -  he/she did

ils/elles firent -  they did

falloir (to have to)

il fallut -  one had to, it was necessary to

ils/ellesfirent - they did

introduire (to introduce)

il/elle introduisit -  he/she introduced

ils/elles introduisirent  - they introduced

lire (to read)

il/elle lut  - he/she read

ils/elles lurent  - they read

mettre (to put)

il/elle mit -  he/she put

ils/elles mirent  - they put

mourir (to die)

il/elle mourut -  he/she died

ils/elles moururent -  they died

naître (to be born)

il/elle naquit -  he/she was born

ils/elles naquirent -  they were born

obtenir (to obtain)

il/elle obtint -  he/she obtained

ils/elles obtinrent  - they obtained

offrir (to offer)

il/elle offrit -  he/she offered

ils/elles offrirent -  they offered

peindre (to paint)

il/elle peignit  - he/she painted

ils/elles peignirent -  they painted

plaire (to please)

il/elle plut  - he/she pleased

ils/elles plurent -  they pleased

pleuvoir (to rain)

il plut  - it rained

pouvoir (can)

il/elle put -  he/she could

ils/elles purent  - they could

prendre (to take)

il/elle prit -  he/she took

ils/elles prirent  - they took

recevoir (to receive)

il/elle reçut  - he/she received

ils/elles reçurent  - they received

rire (to laugh)

il/elle rit -  he/she laughed

ils/elles rirent  - they laughed

savoir (to know)

il/elle sut -  he/she knew

ils/elles surent  - they knew

sourire (to smile)

il/elle sourit -  he/she smiled

ils/elles sourirent -  they smiled

tenir (to hold)

il/elle tint -  he/she held

ils/elles tinrent  - they held

valoir (to be worth)

il/elle valut -  it was worth

ils/elles valurent -  they were worth

venir (to come)

il/elle vint -  he/she came

ils/elles vinrent -  they came

vivre (to live)

il/elle vécut -  he/she lived

ils/elles vécurent -  they lived

vouloir (to want)

il/elle voulut -  he/she wanted

ils/elles voulurent -  they wanted