As someone over the age of 5, you get to a certain point where you really don’t want to read any more children’s stories, news articles, or some other random French text without any character development. If you’re a bit of a bookworm, you might have a difficult time ignoring all those famous French novels that sound like just the thing you’d love to read.
Eventually, you feel ready to stop ignoring them and decide to give it a try. It might take a while, but at least you’ll enjoy it, right?
Eager to dive right into your newest grown-up novel written entirely in French, you diligently get yourself set up with your favorite hot beverage, some sort of dictionary, and maybe a pen. You open the book, only to come across this:
Comme d’habitude, un pilote côtier partit aussitôt du port, rasa le château d’If, et alla aborder le navire entre le cap de Morgion et l’île de Rion.
(Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas)
Is that a new verb tense? What gives?
It’s not just in the complex books either and sometimes, it throws you off completely.
Et le petit prince s’en fut.
(Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
Welcome to the passé simple.
Much like the passé composé, the passé simple is used to describe actions that happened in the past and stayed there. The difference is that the passé simple is used in literature while the passé composé is only used in everyday conversation, which means it tends to be ignored until you encounter it.
-ER verbs become…
-IR and -RE verbs become…
Then, there are the irregular verbs like faire, avoir, and être, which can have either irregular stems, irregular endings, or both.
faire avoir être
fis eus fus
fis eus fus
fit eut fut
fîmes eûmes fûmes
fîtes eûtes fûtes
firent eurent furent
Now, you might be lucky enough to find a novel that doesn’t use the passé simple, which usually happens in non-fiction. You might also see it used outside the world of novels, which interestingly enough can happen in sports journalism.
Either way, now that you know the rules, you’re good to go, right?
Forgetting the Rules
The nice thing about passé simple is that you’ll probably never have to conjugate all those verbs yourself, which means you only have to worry about recognizing them. The not so nice thing is that this means you don’t get nearly as much practice as you do with conjugations you actively use.
So, you’re bound to forget many of them.
The real question is: how much time should you spend learning the passé simple before trying to read more French?
What do you need to know?
I believe things are learned best in context, which, in this case, means reading more things with passé simple instead of waiting around until you “get it”.
But how do you keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed when you keep questioning whether or not you know the meaning of a strange looking verb? I’ll admit, constantly having to look something up, only to exclaim “oh, it’s that one!” can be super frustrating.
Start off by trying to remember the irregular verbs you’ll encounter most often, such as faire and être. I’ve also found it helpful to write these common verbs and conjugations on a bookmark. That way, if I read something and don’t quite remember what it is, I don’t have to go to great lengths just to look it up again.
Otherwise, don’t worry about the regular verbs as they’re not too difficult to identify. As long as you remind yourself ahead of time that you’ll encounter the passé simple, you won’t freak out when you get to that oddly conjugated aller.
Most of all, don’t stop reading! Eventually, you’ll get better at identifying verbs in passé simple and you won’t even think twice about what it means.
Feel free to share what you’re reading in the comments below! I’d love to know which book prompted you to learn about the passé simple (and whether it’s any good).