What is it?
The simple past (or historic past):
The simple past is used to refer to past events that are totally completed and without any effect or consequence for the present, at least from the point of view of the speaker. The simple past is now only used in written French, and the compound past is used instead of it in spoken language.
• La Première guerre mondiale éclata en 1914. The First World War broke out in 1914.
• Nous allâmes vivre à Warwick en 2009 et revînment à Cardiff en 2013. We went to live in Warwick in 2009 and came back to Cardiff in 2013.
• Ce jour-là, il dormit toute la journée. On that day, he slept the whole day.
• Ils eurent beau essayer, il ne parvinrent pas à solutionner l'énigme. In spite of trying hard, they couldn't solve the enigma.
Difference with the imperfect:
If you are describing an event, focusing on its process, you need the imperfect (often translated by a past progressive in English e.g.: I was eating). If you are speaking about an event that occured at a particular time (usually adding a clear time reference), you are speaking about it as a whole thing that happened at some point in the past: you then need either the simpe past (in written French) or the compound past (in witten or spoken French; it is usually translated by a past simple in English e.g.: I ate at twelve today).
Contrarily to the imperfect, the simple past and the compound past don't focus on the process but on the result: the action or event is considered as a whole thing, with a beginning and an end.
• Je marchais sur le port quand je vis l'accident. I was walking in the harbour when I saw the accident.
In the example above, the first phrase uses the imperfect to provide a description of the background (what is happening and is in process), whereas the second phrase refers to the fact of witnessing an accident as a whole thing.
Difference with the compound past:
The compound past and the simple past have a similar meaning in French. The main difference is that the simple past in not used any longer in spoken language. It is only used in written French, especially in literature and newspapers. On the contrary, the compound past can be found both in spoken and written language.
Another difference between both is that the simple past describes an action or event which is totally over and without any continuing consequence in the present. This is why it is also called "historic past", as it is commonly used to speak about facts that happened in history. On the contrary, the compound past can describe an event that have continuing consequences for the present, which is why it is sometimes translated by a present perfect in English. Compare:
• Elle partit et ne revint jamais. She left and never came back.
• Elle est sortie mais n'est toujours pas revenue. She went out but hasn't come back yet.
How is it formed?
• Verbs in -er: take the "nous" form of the present tense and remove the ending "-ons" to get the stem;
• Verbs in -ir, -re and -oir: take the past participle and remove the last vowel to get the stem;
• Then, add the corresponding endings below to the stem.
► Four particularly irregular verbs are conjugated below (être, avoir, venir, tenir).
► Concerning other irregular verbs: -ir/-oir irregular verbs have "-us" endings, and -re irregular verbs have "-is" endings.
► It is possible to guess the ending of irregular verbs (-is/-us) by looking at their past participle form (-i/-u).
e.g. Courir > couru (past participle) > courus (past simple).
Irregular verbs include: courir, mettre, prendre, rire, construire
(Verb) -er verbs
(Verb) -ir verbs
(Verb) -re/-oir verbs
Particularly irregular verbs
Other irregular verbs