Le passé simple: the past historic in French

What is the passé simple?

Le passé simple, also known as le passé historique, is a French past tense that is only used in written language. It has the same meaning as the passé composé; it talks about a completed, one-time action in the past.

Learn everything you need to know about the passé simple in French grammar with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

Example

Zeichnung

L’année dernière, je partis en vacances en France.

À vélo, je roulai au bord de la mer de Brest jusqu’à Saint-Malo puis je visitai Saint-Malo.

Pendant que je visitais Saint-Malo, je pris beaucoup de photos.

When to use the passé simple

We use the passé simple in the following cases:

  • to talk about a one-time, completed action in the past
    Example:
    L'année dernière, je partis en vacances en France.Last year I went on holiday to France.
  • to talk about a sequence of past actions
    Example:
    À vélo, je roulai au bord de la mer de Brest à Saint-Malo puis je visitai Saint-Malo.On my bike, I travelled along the coast from Brest to Saint-Malo and then I explored Saint-Malo.
  • to talk about a new action that interrupted another action that was already in progress
    Example:
    Pendant que je visitais Saint-Malo, je pris beaucoup de photos.While I was in Saint-Malo, I took a lot of photos.

Remember

The passé simple is mostly used in written French. In spoken language, we prefer to use the passé composé.

Example:
L’année dernière je suis parti en vacances en France.Last year I went on holiday to France.

How to conjugate the passé simple

To conjugate the passé simple in French grammar, we remove the infinitive ending and add the following endings according to the verb group:

Person er-verb ir-verb re-verb
1st person singular (I) j’aimai je finis je vendis
2nd person singular (you) tu aimas tu finis tu vendis
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on aima il/elle/on finit il/elle/on vendit
1st person plural (we) nous aimâmes nous finîmes nous vendîmes
2nd person plural (you) vous aimâtes vous finîtes vous vendîtes
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles aimèrent ils/elles finirent ils/elles vendirent

The verbs avoir and être are irregular so have a special conjugation in the passé simple.

Person avoir être
1st person singular (I) j’eus je fus
2nd person singular (you) tu eus tu fus
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on eut il/elle/on fut
1st person plural (we) nous eûmes nous fûmes
2nd person plural (you) vous eûtes vous fûtes
3rd person plural (they) ils eurent ils/elles furent

To conjugate any French verb in the passé simple, go to our verb conjugator.

Exceptions to the conjugation rules

  • The verbs venir and tenir, as well as their related forms (revenir, retenir, …), are conjugated differently in the passé simple.
Person venir tenir
1st person singular (I) je vins je tins
2nd person singular (you) tu vins tu tins
3rd person singular (he/she/it) il/elle/on vint il/elle/on tint
1st person plural (we) nous vînmes nous tînmes
2nd person plural (you) vous vîntes vous tîntes
3rd person plural (they) ils/elles vinrent ils/elles tinrent
  • Verbs ending in -oir are irregular in the passé simple; see the list of irregular verbs for examples.
    Example:
    savoirto know → je sus, tu sus, il sut, nous sûmes, vous sûtes, ils surent
  • For verbs ending in -cer, we add a ç before the ending (except in the 3rd person plural).
    Example:
    commencerto start → je commençai, tu commenças, il commença, nous commençâmes, vous commençâtes, ils commencèrent
  • For verbs ending in -ger, we add an e before the ending (except in the 3rd person plural).
    Example:
    mangerto eat → je mangeai, tu mangeas, il mangea, nous mangeâmes, vous mangeâtes, ils mangèrent