top of page

Do I need to know the passé simple in French?

If you've ever tried your hand at reading a novel in French, I'm sure you've seen a few verbs conjugated in the passé simple. It's a very common tense in literature (even modern literature), and yet we very rarely learn about it in French lessons (I hardly ever teach it!). So is it worth knowing about the passé simple? What exactly is it? Let me explain!



The passé simple in everyday life


When we speak French in everyday life, we absolutely NEVER use the passé simple. It's like the imperfect subjunctive: it's disappeared from everyday language, and the only time you come across it is when you're reading. The French learn it at school, precisely so that they can tackle literary French courses, but it has disappeared from everyday spoken language, to be replaced by the passé composé. Why, you may ask? It's simply a consequence of the evolution of the language.

Like all languages, French has evolved over time (we don't speak the same French as we did last century, let alone 10 centuries ago). The simple past began to decline from the 17th century onwards for several reasons:

  • to make speech clearer: some verbs are conjugated in the same way in the present tense and the past simple tense (e.g. verbs in the 2nd group: je finis, tu grandis...), which can lead to confusion.

  • for pronunciation reasons: in some regions, the passé simple and imperfect were pronounced the same (je mangeai/je mangeais), which again led to confusion.


The passé composé is much clearer and more distinct, making it easier to get a message across. This is probably why it has replaced the passé simple over the centuries. Using it verbally wouldn't be incorrect, but it would sound "weird", very formal and not at all natural.



Extrait du Livre des Baltimore de Joël Dicker
Extrait du Livre des Baltimore de Joël Dicker


Why is the past simple still used in literature?


In writing, the message is clearer. When you read the sentence, you understand which tense is being used, so you can use the past simple without the risk of it being confused with another tense. That's why the passé simple is called the "narrative tense".


It's also considered more "aesthetic" and poetic, and is still used in literature, even today. Sometimes, the present tense or the passé composé are also used. This is a choice made by the author to be more "real", closer to the reader, by opting for a more contemporary style.


>>> You will also like:



How to conjugate the passé simple ?


1. The different groups of verbs in French


The endings of the passé simple depend on the verb group. There are 3 verb groups in French:

- the first group ("1er groupe"): verbs ending in "er" in the infinitive, with the exception of "aller" (3rd group). Ex: manger, parler, travailler, étudier, marcher, danser...


- the second group ("2e groupe"): these are verbs ending in "ir" in the infinitive and which have the particularity of having the endings "-issons", "-issez" and "-issent" for the 3 persons of the plural (nous, vous, ils/elles).

Ex: finir, réunir, grandir, vieillir, réussir...


- the third (3rd) group ("3e groupe"): these are all the other verbs. They have a wide variety of endings and are often irregular.

Ex: dormir, être, avoir, connaître, conduire, dire, faire, aller...



2. The endings of the passé simple



1er groupe + aller

2e groupe

3e groupe

Endings

ai, as, a, âmes, âtes, èrent

is, is, it, îmes, îtes, irent

Plusieurs possibilités : - comme le 2e groupe - us, us, ut, ûmes, ûtes, urent - ins, ins, int, înmes, întes, inrent

Examples

Parler Je parlai Tu parlas Il/elle parla Nous parlâmes Vous parlâtes Ils/elles parlèrent

Finir Je finis Tu finis Il/elle finit Nous finîmes Vous finîtes Ils/elles finirent

Dire Je dis Tu dis Il/elle dit Nous dîmes Vous dîtes Ils/elles dirent Connaître Je connus Tu connus Il/elle connut Nous connûmes Vous connûtes Ils/elles connurent


3. Some frequent irregular verbs in the passé simple


Être: je fus, tu fus, il/elle fut, nous fûmes, vous fûtes, ils/elles furent

Avoir: j'eus, tu eus, il/elle eut, nous eûmes, vous eûtes, ils/elles eurent

Faire: je fis, tu fis, il/elle fit, nous fîmes, vous fîtes, ils/elles firent

Vivre: je vécus, tu vécus, il/elle vécut, nous vécûmes, vous vécûtent, ils/elles vécurent

Devoir: je dus, tu dus, il/elle dut, nous dûmes, vous dûtes, ils/elles durent

Pouvoir: je pus, tu pus, il/elle put, nous pûmes, vous pûtes, ils/elles purent

Écrire: j'écrivis, tu écrivis, il/elle écrivit, nous écrivîmes, vous écrivîtes, ils/elles écrivirent



4. Practice


Conjugate the verbs in brackets in the past simple to reconstruct the literary excerpts:


« Cette fois Alice (attendre) patiemment qu'il lui plût de reprendre la parole. Au bout d'une ou deux minutes, la Chenille (retirer) le narguilé de sa bouche, (bâiller) une ou deux fois, et (se secouer). Puis, elle (descendre) du champignon et (s'éloigner) dans l'herbe en rampant, après avoir prononcé ces simples mots en guise d'adieu : « Un côté te fera grandir, l'autre côté te fera rapetisser. »

« Un côté de quoi ? L'autre côté de quoi ? », (penser) Alice.

« Du champignon », (dire) la Chenille, exactement comme si Alice eût posé ses questions à haute voix ; après quoi, elle (disparaître). »

Alice aux Pays des Merveilles (Lewis Carroll).


Correction: attendit - retira - bâilla - se secoua - descendit - s'éloigna - pensa - dit - disparut



2. « Le petit prince (arracher) aussi, avec un peu de mélancolie, les dernières pousses de baobabs. Il croyait ne jamais devoir revenir. Mais tous ces travaux familiers lui (paraître), ce matin-là, extrêmement doux. Et, quand il (arroser) une dernière fois la fleur, et (se préparer) à la mettre à l’abri sous son globe, il se (découvrir) l’envie de pleurer.

– Adieu, (dire)-il à la fleur.

Mais elle ne lui (répondre) pas.

– Adieu, (répéter)-t-il.

La fleur (tousser). Mais ce n’était pas à cause de son rhume. »

Le Petit Prince (Antoine de Saint Exupéry)


Correction: arracha - parurent - arrosa - se prépara - découvrit - dit - répondit - répéta - toussa



In conclusion, do you need to know the past simple to speak French?


As the past simple isn't used in everyday language, I'd say it's not necessary if your aim is simply to be able to have and understand a conversation in French. You can live in France without knowing the past simple without any problem!


But if you like to read and are interested in French literature (even modern and recent), you may need to know a little about the passé simple. In my opinion, you don't need to know all the irregular verbs, all the endings and all the subtleties of the tense, but being able to recognize the verb in the simple past can be useful for understanding a story in the past tense.



To go further


Do you need help to improve your conversation, prepare for an exam or understand grammar better? Book your online French lessons in just a few clicks!

35 views0 comments

Commentaires


bottom of page