Simple Past Tense

When to use Simple Past

Simple Past is used for finished actions in the past. The focus is on the action itself, not on its present consequences. Simple Past is often used to describe a series of events or to tell stories. For example, when describing what you did during a day in the past.

  • For habits or repeated, regular events
    The bus came at 7 am every morning.
    Sometimes I went to the park during lunch break.
    They often trained together before races.
  • Past event that happened at a given point in time
    I went to bed at 12 pm last night.
    She was born in 2000.
    What time did your flight leave on Wednesday?
  • Past event with an indefinite point in time
    She was my best friend.
    I bought this watch a long time ago.
    I bumped into my high school sweetheart the other day.

Structure of Simple Past Tense

Subject + Simple Past form of the verb + Object
She                          studied                  medicine.

The Simple Past Tense has the simplest past structures. In an affirmative sentence, there is no auxiliary verb. The action verb needs to be used in past participle. The past participle of the verb is created the following way:

Regular verbs

To create the past tense form of regular verbs, simply add -ed to the end of the verb.
want → wanted → I wanted to help you.
shift → shifted → The real power shifted to the advisor.
cook → cooked → Mom cooked a delicious meal.
wait → waited → Cinderella waited for a long time for his prince.
play → played → My best friend played tennis in high school.
bake → baked → I baked a chocolate cake last weekend.
add → added → The teacher added some extra slides to the presentation.
stay → stayed → My roommate stayed up late last night.
jump → jumped → The nighbour’s goats jumped over the fence.
look → looked → You looked wonderful in that dress.
enjoy → enjoyed → They enjoyed a night out together.
push → pushed → Tom pushed the wrong button.
walk → walked → Grandpa always walked around in the garden.

Spelling changes

However, there are some exceptions in spelling regular verbs ending in -ed. The spelling rules follow the same logic as the spelling of the progressive participle.

  1. Verbs ending in -e only get a -d.
    live → lived
    vote → voted
    love → loved
    create → created
  2. Double the final letter if the verb ends in consonant + vowel + consonant.
    stop → stopped
    plan → planned
    drop → dropped
    fit → fitted
  3. Don’t double the last consonant if the stress is on the first syllable even though the verb ends in consonant + vowel + consonant.
    happen → happened
    offer → offered
    enter → entered
  4. Don’t double the last consonant if the verb ends in -w, -x, -y or when the last syllable is not stressed.
    follow → followed
    enjoy → enjoyed
    fix → fixed

Some examples:
We happened to be there at the same time.
My dad fixed my bike yesterday.
Liam dropped out of school a long time ago.
I never finished high school.

Irregular verbs

There are many common words that have irregular second and third forms that don’t end in -ed. For example,

go → went → gone
do → did → done
make → made → made
get → got → got

You can find an extensive list of the most frequently used irregular verbs here. The sooner you start learning them, the sooner you’ll finish!

Note that there is no conjugation in 3rd person singular in past tense except for the verb ‘to be’:
I was                                                                                                                                                           You were
He / she / it was
We were
You were
They were

Take a look at where Simple Past is in the Verb Tenses Table:

simple past

Simple Past Negative

In the English language, negative forms of verbs are usually formed by an auxiliary verb and ‘not’. For example: She may not go out tonight. In the Simple Past Tense, the verb ‘do’ serves as an auxiliary verb to help the formation of negative and questions. The auxiliary verb, however, needs to be in second form, so the correct forms will be ‘did’ and ‘didn’t’. ‘Did’ here has no special meaning, it serves only grammatical purposes. The action verb follows the auxiliary verb which can stay in first form because the auxiliary verb already expresses the past tense. The negative of Simple Past is formed as follows:

S + did + not + bare infinitive + O

Remember to use the short version in everyday language by combing ‘did’ and ‘not’ to ‘didn’t’ and the long version ‘did not’ in a formal written context.

Examples:

I didn’t want to hang out with them last night.
She didn’t finish her paper until the deadline.
We didn’t go to the beach yesterday.

Yes/No questions in Simple Past

In the English language, questions are usually formed by switching the (first) auxiliary verb and the subject. To form questions the auxiliary verb ‘to do’ in past tense ‘did’ is used. Similarly to Simple Past Negative, the action verb stays in first form. For example:

I really liked the supper last night. → Did you like the supper last night?

They went to the nearest coffee shop. → Did they go to the nearest coffee shop?

My friend didn’t come with me to the handball game. → Did your friend come with you to the handball game?

Open-ended questions in Simple Past

To form open-ended questions, simply put the question word to the beginning of the sentence. The word order folowing the question word remains tha same as in case of yes/no questions. For example:

What did you have for supper last night?

Where did they go?

Why didn’t you friend come with you?

Typical adverbs of Simple Past

Yesterday, last night / week / year, at (2) o’clock, at (5) pm, once / twice…, … days / hours / weeks / years ago, for … hours, for a long time, a long time ago, ages ago

For example:
Yesterday I woke up at 7 am. I got out of bed and made myself a cup of coffee. I took a shower before starting to work. I worked for 3 hours and then met my friend for coffee at 11 o’clock. I invited her to come to my dinner party when she told me she didn’t have any plans for the evening. We had a great time last night.

Expressing habits in the past with ‘used to’ and ‘would’

There are two expressions used for expressing repeated actions in the past that are not tenses. In some special cases, these expressions describe the intention of the speaker more clearly than any of the past tenses. These expressions are ‘used to’ and ‘would’.

Let’s take a look at ‘used to’ first:

‘Used to’ expressed a repeated event, a habit or a state of something in the past. It describes an event or state that happened in the past but have already finished. It is frequently used for describing general past states, not specific events. Whereas Past Simple refers to a specific event with a given point in time, ‘used to’ refers to actions that regularly happened in the past.

The structure of the expression follows the same logic as the structure of Simple Past. In an affirmative sentence, ‘used to’ is followed by the bare infinitive of the action verb. In negative sentences and questions, the auxiliary verb ‘did’ helps to form the structure. As ‘did’ already expresses past tense, the -d at the end of ‘used to’ must be dropped.

Affirmative structure of ‘used to’: S + ‘used to’ + bare infinitive

Negative structure of ‘used to’: S + ‘didn’t use to’ + bare infinitive

Making questions with ‘used to’: Did + S + ‘use to’ + bare infinitive ?

For example:

I used to smoke, but I quit last week.
She used to be my best friend, but she got mad at me when I forgot about her birthday.
There used to be a lot more parks in this city.
Did you use to listen to this band in your teens?
I didn’t use to go on field trips with the class.

Expressing regular event and action in the past using ‘would’

‘Would’ is used for expressing regular actions in the past or typical event for a time period in the past. The main difference between ‘would’ and ‘used to’ is that you cannot use ‘would’ for describing states. Use ‘would’ for talking about actions and things that people can do.  For example,

My grandma would be a teacher when he was younger.
My grandma used to be a teacher when he was younger.

She would complain about the kids all the time.
She used to complain about the kids all the time.

The structure of expressing regular past events with ‘would’ is the same as if you were using ‘would’ as a modal verb:

Affirmative: S + ‘would’ + bare infinitive

Negative: S + ‘wouldn’t / would not’ + bare infinitive

Questions: Would + S + bare infinitive ?

Overview of English Verb Tenses

Introduction

Learning verb tenses is always the tricky part of learning a language. Especially, when a language has 12 of them. It might sound scary at first but once you understand the logic behind why there are so many in the English language, you’ll be able to use them with confidence. In this post, I’ll give you a general overview on tenses that you can use as guidence before you dive into each tense one by one. Take a look at the following chart with all the tenses:

Verb Tenses Chart
12 English Verb Tenses

*S refers to subject as the performer of the action
E.g. If we examine the following sentence: ‘Mary makes a coffee.’ → Mary is the subject.
*O refers to the object on which the action is performed
E.g. In the above-mentioned sentence the coffee is the object.

Verb Tenses

In the English language, tenses are categorized according to two characteristics: tense and aspect as you can see it in the table above. Understanding tenses is more intuitive as there are past, present and future tenses, depending where the action takes place in time compared to our present.

Verb Aspect

The aspect is a bit more complicated. We differentiate three aspects: simple, progressive and perfect. Each tense has a simple, a progressive, a perfect progressive and a perfect version, adding up to 12 tenses. However, it is enough to understand the logic behind the aspects and you will know when to use them. Each aspect follows the same structure in all tenses, therefore, you will only need to learn the logic behind the structure of each aspect and you will be able to put it in past, present of future forms.

Don’t confuse tenses with clauses

In the table above, you can find all tenses in each aspect. Note that each of these tenses can be used in different clauses such as conditional and passive voice so do not confuse the two. I encourage you to check out the overview pages of each aspect before jumping into the tenses so that you will have a general understanding of the structure. Always use a verb tenses chart for guidance.

Useful abbreviations in verb structures

Most verb tenses in the English language consist of an auxuliary verb (helping verb) and a main verb, meaning that there are auxiliary verbs assisting the action verb to express the right time and aspect. At the beginning of each page, you will find a clear guideline how to form the structure in that specific tense. I will be using the following abbreviations for different verb forms:

  • Bare infinitive: Bare infinitive is the infinitive form of the  You form the first form of the verb by dropping the ‘to’ from the infinitive form.
    For example: to make → make
    to play → play
  • Simple Past: The second form of the verb is the past form or -ed form. Note that there are many irregular verbs in the English language. You can find an extensive list here.
  • Past Participle: The third form of the verb is the Past Participle. It is formed by adding -ed to the end of the verb. However, the irregular verbs have irregular Past Participle forms, as well, that you can learn along with the second forms. The third form usually follows the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ in Perfect Tenses.
  • Progressive Participle: The -ing form of the verb is created by adding -ing to the end of the verb. There are some irregularities in spelling that you can find here. The -ing form is generally used in Progressive Tenses and it is follows the auxiliary verb ‘to be’.

Always keep in mind

There are some general rules in English structures that can help you get the right form:

  • ‘Have’ as an auxiliary verb is always followed by the perfect participle of the verb.
    For example: I have been dreaming about a chocolate cake for so long.
  • ‘To be’ in progressive tenses is always followed by the progressive participe of the verb. If it is followed by the perfect participle, it refers to Passive Voice which is not a verb tense.
    For example: Bob was lying to me the whole time. → progressive
    I was being lied to the whole time. → Passive Voice
  • When you got the correct structure of the chosen aspect right, it is always the first auxiliary verb that needs to be put in the chosen tense.
    For example: ‘to be going to the movies’ →  She was going to the movies.
  • The first auxiliary verb of the tense must always agree with the subject. The form of all other auxiliary or action verbs will be determined by the auxiliary verb standing in front of them.
    For example: She has been knitting this sweater for months. → Here, the form of ‘to have’ must agree with she or third person singular.