5 Most Common Questions About the French Simple Past Tense
As many French language learners know, the passé simple ain’t as simple as it sounds.
It’s a tense so finicky that no one even uses it in day-to-day French conversations, but you’re bound to discover it at some point.
Maybe you’ll find it lurking beneath the cover of an unsuspecting book, or in the lines of an otherwise amusing Molière play.
Here, we have provided comprehensive answers to the five most common questions that virtually all French language learners ask regarding the simple past tense.
- 1. What is the Simple Past Tense?
- 2. Why Have I Never Seen the Simple Past Tense Before?
- 3. How Did the Simple Past Tense Fall Out of Use?
- 4. When Might I Use the Simple Past Tense?
- 5. What’s the Harm in Overusing the Simple Past Tense?
- Bonus: Why Haven’t I Ever Heard of the Imperfect Subjunctive?
1. What is the Simple Past Tense?
The simple past tense is an indicative tense that has a similar, almost identical meaning to that of the passé composé. It expresses events where both the beginning and the end of the event have occurred in the past, and where duration is not a defining characteristic of the event. Some examples of such events are “I went to the store” (J’allai au magasin) and “I got up at eight” (Je me levai à huit heures).
Well, it’s a good bet that you have never seen those endings in your French class before. That’s because, unlike the imparfait (imperfect), futur simple (simple future), futur proche (near future) and conditionnel (conditional), the roots and endings of the simple past tense are unlike any others that your grammar books have covered.
The Roots of Simple Past Tense
The simple past tense, like all French verb tenses, has two basic parts: the root and the ending. The root of the simple past tense is actually relatively simple to find once you know where to look. In regular –er, –ir and –re verbs, the root is the same as for the present tense:
Aimer –> aim–
Dormir –> dorm–
Rendre –> rend–
Now let’s have a look at those irregular verbs when put into the simple past tense:
Faire –> je fis
Venir –> je vins
Être –> je fus
Avoir –> j’eus
Not so simple anymore.
But let’s put a pin in those irregular roots to make way for the endings.
The Endings of Simple Past Tense
The basic endings are –ai, –as, –a, –âmes (or –îmes), –âtes (or –îtes) and –èrent (or –irent). These endings produce sentences like:
Nous fûmes très heureux. (We were very happy.)
Ils rendirent les porte-feuilles qu’ils avaient volés. (They returned the wallets that they had stolen.)
From there, the combination of irregular roots and irregular groups will ensure that you get your money’s worth from that Bescherelle grammar book gathering dust on your shelf.
2. Why Have I Never Seen the Simple Past Tense Before?
While you’re wrapping your head around the novelty of such a tense, a question may have popped into your mind: “Why am I only hearing about this now?”
After all, you’ve been studying French for several years, and you can distinguish between the passé composé and the imparfait with the best of them. You know how to absorb new French grammar lessons and quickly integrate them into your conversational French. Maybe you’ve learned how to read French like a pro, and have already tried your hand at reading “L’Étranger.” Watching French language movies and TV shows is a breeze. Why hasn’t this peculiar tense come up at some point?
The simple past tense has become, for all intents and purposes, a literary tense. Many modern novelists don’t even use it, opting instead for the more contemporary and oral passé composé. If you haven’t been reading great classics of French literature in their unabridged form – or fairy-tales, which always end with “Ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d’enfants,” (the French equivalent of “They lived happily ever after”) you’ve likely never seen the passé simple before… and if you don’t start seeking out a greater diversity of authentic French reading material, you rarely will.
3. How Did the Simple Past Tense Fall Out of Use?
In years past, the passé simple and passé composé were two tenses that expressed slightly different concepts in the past. The passé composé was used for events that happened in the past and may still be happening, while the passé simple was used for events that were completely over and done with.
Because the meanings were fairly similar and the distinction between the two was often ambiguous at best, the more difficult passé simple began to fall out of conversational use. To this day, it lives on almost exclusively in literature.
There are a few areas of the French-speaking world where the passé simple is still used, such as in Canada. However, you will not hear it on the streets of Paris unless you come face-to-face with a time traveler.
4. When Might I Use the Simple Past Tense?
There is a good reason why you’ve never learned passé simple before. It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever need to write it, much less speak it. However, it is extremely valuable to know how to read it. If reading is an important French learning tool for you, you’ve probably already noticed passé simple here and there.
Most French books, even books written for lower reading levels, use the simple past tense to express actions that have happened in the past. It is very important to understand the fundamentals of the tense, even if it’s only so you can grasp the difference between “I was a rabbit” (Je fus un lapin) and “I got a rabbit” (J’eus un lapin).
5. What’s the Harm in Overusing the Simple Past Tense?
Once you start learning the simple past tense and perfecting your conjugations, you may feel a desire to start dropping it into conversation. After all, it can only prove how good you are at French to your Francophone friends…right?
Because the simple past tense has fallen into such disuse, using it in conversation can seem uppity, old-fashioned and even snobbish.
The only instance in which it would be acceptable to use the simple past tense in conversation would be if you were humorously conveying a snobbish tone. This would sound akin to an American English-speaker using a British accent or saying thou or doth in certain contexts. It doesn’t happen often, or naturally.
When properly dropped into conversation, this little grammatical tidbit will have the impressive effect you seek. Until then, reserve the simple past tense to when you’re writing your own fairy-tales.
Bonus: Why Haven’t I Ever Heard of the Imperfect Subjunctive?
But wait, there’s more!
When the simple past fell into disuse, it brought down another tense with it: the imperfect subjunctive or imparfait du subjonctif. These two tenses shared the same root. In comparison to the imperfect subjunctive, the simple past tense is a cake walk. After one complicated tense was eliminated from conversational French, there was no way that people were going to make an effort to tackle imperfect subjunctive. In this way, conversational French began to streamline itself.
Today, sentences constructed with a subjunctive in the past usually just use the present subjunctive:
Il aurait fallu que je vienne. (I should have come.)
Everyone says it, but it’s not technically correct. So the next time you really want to impress your friends by affecting a posh tone, try dropping this doozy into the conversation:
Il aurait fallu que je vinsse.
While many French teachers will tell you that the passé simple isn’t really necessary to learn, French language and French culture are extremely intertwined. The more familiar you are with the passé simple, the easier a time you will have with reading in French, seeing French plays and even throwin’ out some French jokes. If conjugation isn’t your thing, at least try to get familiar with the roots and endings so you’ll know when to recognize it; it will make reading French books a whole lot more interesting!