The passé simple (French pronunciation: [pase sɛ̃pl], simple past or preterite), also called the passé défini (IPA: [pase defini], definite past), is the literary equivalent of the passé composé in the French language, used predominantly in formal writing (including history and literature) and formal speech. As with other preterites, it is used when the action has a definite beginning and end and has already been completed, comparable to the Ancient Greek aorist. In writing it is most often used for narration. While literary and refined language still hangs on to the passé simple, the spoken language has simply renounced passé simple for the passé composé, which means that in spoken French, there is no longer a nuance between:
Passé composé « Je suis arrivé. » ("I have arrived." I have come to town. I may have just arrived.)
Passé simple « J'arrivai. » ("I arrived." I came to town, but it is possible that I am not still here.)
The difference (regarding written language) is subtle. The passé simple is divorced from the present and has definitely been completed, while the passé composé is still connected to the present and may even still be happening.
Constructing the passé simple
Many students of French are surprised to find that even books for elementary-aged French children are written using the passé simple, even though it is only taught to learners of French in advanced classes. The passé simple is most often formed by dropping the last two letters off the infinitive form of the verb and adding the appropriate ending.
The three main classes of French regular verbs (-er, -ir, -re) are conjugated in the passé simple tense in the following way:
|chercher||to look for, to search|
|je cherchai||nous cherchâmes|
|tu cherchas||vous cherchâtes|
|il chercha||ils cherchèrent|
|je finis||nous finîmes|
|tu finis||vous finîtes|
|il finit||ils finirent|
|rendre||to give back|
|je rendis||nous rendîmes|
|tu rendis||vous rendîtes|
|il rendit||ils rendirent|
Several common irregular verbs:
|je fis||nous fîmes|
|tu fis||vous fîtes|
|il fit||ils firent|
|je vins||nous vînmes|
|tu vins||vous vîntes|
|il vint||ils vinrent|
|je fus||nous fûmes|
|tu fus||vous fûtes|
|il fut||ils furent|
|j'eus [ʒy]||nous eûmes [nu.zym]|
|tu eus [ty.y]||vous eûtes [vu.zyt]|
|il eut [i.ly]||ils eurent [il.zyʁ]|
Many other irregular verbs are easily recognized because the passé simple often resembles the past participle. For example, il courut (he ran) is from courir, for which the past participle is couru. Some, however, are totally irregular. Naitre (to be born) has a past participle né and yet the passé simple is (for example) je naquis... (I was born....)
How the passé simple is used
The passé simple is used to express:
- an event or action, of long or short duration, that is complete, and over, but not necessarily remote in time:
Le Général de Gaulle vécut 80 ans.
General de Gaulle lived for eighty years.
En 1991, l’équipe de France de tennis gagna la coupe Davis.In 1991, the French team won the Davis Cup.
- a series of completed events, perceived as points in time:
...l’image fut bonne...cela parut pour son entourage l’essentiel... on sentit tout de même…son épouse lui fit signe de...
...the impression was good...that seemed to be the essential thing for his entourage...they felt nevertheless...his wife signalled to him to...
- in combination with and in contrast to the imperfect tense, which describes the background of the event or series of events:
Puis, il tourna le robinet de l’évier, se lava les mains, s’essuya au linge accroché sous le grêle tuyau…Et elle guettait ses moindres gestes...
Then he turned on the tap, washed his hands, dried them on the towel hanging under the thin pipe…. And she watched his slightest movement...
Local variations and modern usage
In modern spoken French, the passé simple has practically disappeared. Localised French has its own variations, like this sample from Langue d'oïl in the North of France where "mangea" is replaced by "mangit":
« Malheureux comme le chien à Brisquet, qui n'allit qu'une fois au bois, et que le loup le mangit. »
Unfortunate like Brisquet's dog, who only went into the woods once and whom the wolf ate.
From « Histoire du chien de Brisquet » by Charles Nodier
In North America, the passé simple continues to be used, at least more than merely in France. It has retained its use due to the mirroring interactions with English, which has equivalents to both the "passé composé" and the "passé simple".
In modern spoken French, the passé simple is occasionally slipped into conversation as a joke to make the sentence sound either snobbier or more refined, especially after the first or second person plural, which are rarely if ever used in contemporary French, even in writing.
- Lang, M. and Perez I. (2004). Modern French Grammar. Second Edition. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-39725-8.