When should I use the passé simple?

The passé simple, or the 'past historic', is a very irregular past tense that is rarely used in spoken French. It indicates a highly literary style, and is therefore only heard in formal speeches, such as those delivered by the President. 

Generally, the passé simple is used exclusively in writing, and specifically in literary writings. French children quickly grow accustomed to it because it is used in storybooks and the like, but they rarely use it themselves. Newspapers used to use the passé simple to recount events, but in recent years the passé composé, or 'perfect tense', has become an increasingly popular option.

In terms of meaning, the passé simple is almost identical to the passé composé. It refers to a completed, non-habitual action performed in the past, and is often used to convey a sequence of finite events. In theory, actions recounted in the passé composé continue to an exert an influence on the present, whereas actions in the passé simple do not; however, in general, the author of a text will either choose between the literary passé simple and the more informal passé composé for stylistic reasons, and then use this tense throughout. 

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