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The French Past Historic
In French, the past historic (aka the passé simple or the preterite) is used to describe actions completed in the past, similar to the perfect tense.
Key Differences between the past historic and perfect tense
1) The past historic is used in only in formal writing and exceptionally formal speech. The perfect tense, on the other hand, can be used in both speech and writing, formal and informal.
2) The past historic describes events which are 'detached' from the present. The perfect tense, by contast, has more of a link to the present.
For example, if I were to begin a historical, written factfile with the sentence: 'Voltaire was born in 1694.' I would use the past historic, 'Voltaire naquit en 1694', because it has no obvious connection to the present.
However, if I were to explain why I am supplying you with this sample question, I would use the perfect tense, 'Je vous donne cet exemple d'une question, parce que j'ai décidé de travailler chez mytutor', because my decision to work for mytutor is very much attached to the present action of providing you with this sample question.
As with all language, learning there will always be irregular forms of verbs which must be committed to memory. However, there are some broad rules for forming verbs in the past historic:
- je donnai
- tu donnas
- il/elle/on donna
- nous donnâmes
- vous donnâtes
- ils/elles donnèrent
Verbs which have an irregular stem, such as manger and lancer keep their stem apart from when the ils/elles form is used:
- je mangeai - ils mangèrent
- je lançai - ils lancèrent
- je finis
- tu finis
- il/elle/on finit
- nous finîmes
- vous finîtes
- ils/elles finirent
- je vendis
- tu vendis
- il/elle/on vendit
- nous vendîmes
- vous vendîtes
- ils/elles vendirent
Many French verbs have a past participle that ends in 'u'. For some of these verbs, such as lire (lu); concevoir (conçu); devoir (dû). Some of these verbs use the past participle for their stem.
- je lus
- tu lus
- il/elle/on lut
- nous lûmes
- vous lûtes
- ils/elles lurent
- The past historic is used mostly in formal writing.
- It is used to describe completed actions in the past, which are detached from the present. Thus it is used with the imperfect tense: 'I was playing football when I broke my leg' -> 'je jouais au foot quand je me cassai la jambe'.
- You can study A level French without using it, with the importance on being able to recognise it. The perfect tense can be used in its place.see more