When I was in school, I went off one summer to what was basically a camp for students in French studies. We lived in dormitories, cooked together four times a week, and attended seminars during the day. In the evenings, we socialized in the common areas or, because it was during a hot, muggy summer in the northeastern United States, we gathered outside. One evening we were gathered in the quad and decided to play Rigmarole, a game in which each member of the group told part of a story, one person picking up where the other left off. We played in French, of course, and I made up a rule that we needed to use the passé simple. Wasn’t it fitting to use a verb tense designated for past narrative while telling a fictional tale involving a wandering buffalo?

To be honest, I think I just wanted to make the storytelling process more interesting, which I’m sure made me extremely popular among the students in that program. I remember some hesitation over this stipulation, and at least one member who only used third person singular conjugations from the 1e groupe when it was her turn to speak. Looking back, my two comments are a) kudos for taking the easy way out (how boring) and b) if she’d taken the plunge and used another type of verb, she could have risked being incorrect without half the people there noticing, since the passé simple is not included on many syllabi and few French students are expected to produce it.


Is it Necessary to Learn the Passé Simple?

So, is it necessary to learn the passé simple? The passé simple is not taught very much in language courses, since it is a literary, formal tense that is used to speak of the past and is not heard very often in conversation, classrooms, or even on radio or television. That said, you will hear it in formal discourse, such as political speeches, which do happen to be broadcast over these media, as well as in historic discourse and in formal speech. You could hear it in a historian’s course on “L’éloge du savoir”, a show on the radio station France Culture that broadcasts lectures given at the Collège de France. In addition to these formal settings, the passé simple is found in children’s books, since it is used in fairy tales. Called a “once upon a time” tense, the passé simple designates a completed past action that is detached from the present. That buffalo from our Rigmarole game at French camp is long gone.

The passé simple is often regarded as interchangeable in Modern French with the passé composé, which also designates a completed past action whose duration is well-defined. The passé composé is indeed used in everyday speech at moments when, in more formal discourse, we would use the passé simple. Whereas a formal statement would read: “Sa Majesté la reine Elizabeth II du Royaume-Uni arriva au palais”, it could appear in conversational speech as: “Sa Majesté la reine Elizabeth II du Royaume-Uni est arrivée au palais”. The passé composé is thus able to replace the passé simple in expressions of past actions that are precise, sequential, and that take place within a well-defined duration of time.

Unlike the passé composé, however, the passé simple is not used for past actions that have any bearing upon the present. While the English version of the phrase “La reine est arrivée” could be “The queen came” or “The queen has come”, which use a preterite and present perfect tense (respectively), “La reine arriva” would simply be translated as “The queen came”. The link with the present expressed by the passé composé could also imply that the queen is still present after her arrival. In his 1983 article on the disappearance of the passé simple in French, Edward Van Vliet states that the passé simple is not interchangeable with the passé composé in sentences with depuis, for example, and that the phrase “depuis la semaine dernière, elle a lu deux romans” needs to specifically use the passé composé. This sets it apart from the passé simple, signaling the nuances that are expressed by each tense in the French language.


The passé simple has not always been relegated to fairy tales and history lectures, having been used more broadly in oral communication until the end of the eighteenth century, according to an article by Claude Duneton which appeared in a January 2017 issue of the Figaro. And it hasn’t fallen completely out of conversational use, as pointed out by studies, such as Van Vliet’s, which cite its use in France’s regional languages, including Norman, Lorrain, Walloon, Burgundian, and Occitan. In addition to its presence in certain oral contexts, the passé simple is used as a stylistic device in past narrative, denoting a detachment from the action that is related, which distances the narrator from the scene of action. This explains its most frequent appearance in Modern French in third person singular conjugations, which are commonly used to narrate the past.

The third person singular conjugation of the passé simple is the conjugation most commonly taught in France, where there is an ongoing debate over its status in the educational curriculum. There is a certain amount of frustration related to the learning – and therefore the teaching – of this tense, as it seems cumbersome, requiring a radical and endings for each verb rather than the two verb conjugations needed for the auxiliary verbs of the passé composé. In addition, not all verbs are conjugated in the passé simple, as noted in this one-minute segment on France Culture:

No, neither braire, traire, nor stupéfaire are conjugated in the passé simple. Verbs such as these are considered defective, as they lack certain tenses and conjugations in their current use. Other difficulties include a resemblance that is almost too strong to other conjugations, such as the imparfait du subjonctif, whose third person singular conjugation only differs from that of the passé simple by a circumflex accent, which is inaudible to the ears of Modern French speakers. “Louis XVI fut guillotiné” and “Louis XVI fût guillotiné” are distinguished solely by a circumflex, although the second phrase would most likely be preceded by the conjunction que.

Forming the passé simple

The passé simple is formed using the radical of the infinitive form of a verb. There are two series of endings for regular verbs: one for those ending in -er and one for those ending in -ir and -re. For irregular verbs, there are also two series of endings, with some having irregular radicals. The irregular verb aller follows the conjugation of the 1e groupe.

1e groupe


je chantai nous chantâmes
tu chantas vous chantâtes
elle, il, on chanta elles, ils chantèrent

2e groupe


je finis nous finîmes
tu finis vous finîtes
elle, il, on finit elles, ils finirent


je dormis nous dormîmes
tu dormis vous dormîtes
elle, il, on dormit elles, ils dormirent

3e groupe


j’attendis nous attendîmes
tu attendis vous attendîtes
elle, il, on attendit elles, ils attendirent

Irregular Verbs


je bus nous bûmes
tu bus vous bûtes
elle, il, on but elles, ils burent


je fus nous fûmes
tu fus vous fûtes
elle, il, on fut elles, ils furent


j’eus nous eûmes
tu eus vous eûtes
elle, il, on eut elles, ils eurent


je mourus nous mourûmes
tu mourus vous mourûtes
elle, il, on mourut elles, ils moururent


je naquis nous naquîmes
tu naquis vous naquîtes
elle, il, on naquit elles, ils naquirent


je fis nous fîmes
tu fis vous fîtes
elle, il, on fit elles, ils firent


je m’assis nous nous assîmes
tu t’assis vous vous assîtes
elle, il, on s’assit elles, ils s’assirent


j’allai nous allâmes
tu allas vous allâtes
elle, il, on alla elles, ils allèrent

There are some very irregular verbs, such as venir and tenir, which follow this pattern:


je vins nous vînmes
tu vins vous vîntes
elle, il, on vint elles, ils vinrent

Impersonal verbs, including falloir and pleuvoir, are conjugated in this way:

falloir → il fallut
pleuvoir → il plut

The passé simple does seem to take some adjusting to, but there are patterns to its formation that emerge and become clearer and clearer with each encounter. While it is not exactly simple, it will pop up at various moments, whether you’re hearing it on the radio or seeing it in a children’s book. To the Modern French ear, it indicates a level of formality, which some link to refinement, and even to class distinction. Others, however, simply associate it with storytelling and appreciate the variety of its conjugations and the nuance that it brings to events that have risen and settled long ago.

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