The past historic (passé simple)

The past historic, usually called the passé simple in French, also referred to as the preterite by some authors, is a past tense essentially used in written narratives of a classical style. It has the following features:

  • it conveys past, completed actions that are slightly "detached" from the present;
  • actions are usually understood as occurring in sequence— i.e. if there are two verbs written in the past historic that represent actions, the action of the first verb is usually assumed to have occurred before the action of the second verb;
  • it generally has very distinctive and unusual forms compared to other tenses of French (e.g. practically every nous and vous form in the language end in -ons and -ez, except for the past historic forms, which end in -mes and -tes);
  • it is an explicitly taught tense: native French speakers generally don't "naturally" acquire the past historic (unlike other tense forms except the imperfect subjunctive) or have much intuition about its forms;
  • it is therefore essentially a written tense, used in classical styles of narrative; it is never used in everyday speech.

Common past historic forms

The past historic forms of various irregular verbs are highly irregular (in that, for example, they can have a vowel change not found elsewhere in the verb's conjugation). However, we can cover the forms of the majority of verbs with a few generalities:

  • the past historic endings of a given verb are based on a "theme vowel", generally as follows:
    • -a for -er verbs;
    • -i for regular -ir and -re verbs and some irregular verbs;
    • -u for some irregular verbs, especially those whose past participle ends with a u vowel.
  • the past historic ending is generally made up of the theme vowel plus the endings -s, -s, -t, -ˆmes, ˆtes, -rent, though with some complications in the case of -er verbs (see below);

Putting these together gives the following typical past historic conjugations:

persondonnerfinirvendreêtre
jedonnaifinisvendisfus
tudonnasfinisvendisfus
il/elledonnafinitvenditfut
nousdonnâmesfinîmesvendîmesfûmes
vousdonnâtesfinîtesvendîtesfûtes
ils/ellesdonnèrentfinirentvendirentfurent
Past historic forms of regular verbs plus être
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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.