English Past Tense
This article looks at English past tense, which you may also hear referred to as simple past tense or past simple. We’ll start with the basics, and then dive into irregularities and other things to look out for.
What is Past Simple?
The past simple or simple past tense refers to a verb tense of the English language that denotes an action that happened in a period of time before the very moment the person is speaking or writing. Simple past is constructed differently with regular or irregular verbs.
Simple Past with Regular Verbs
To construct the past simple with regular verbs you always have to add an –ed at the end of the simple form of the verb, also known as the infinitive form or the root form. Contrary to simple present tense, it doesn’t change depending on the grammatical person — it remains the same for all pronouns.
However, there are a few exceptions, so you must use your memory to learn these spelling rules by heart!
- If the verb ends in –e you only add a –d.
- If the verb ends in a vowel followed by a consonant, and the syllable stress is on the final syllable, the consonant is usually doubled before adding the –ed.
On the contrary, listenned and orbitted would be incorrect because the syllable stress is on the first syllable and not the last one.
- If the verb ends in a consonant followed by a –y you substitute the –y for –i before adding the –ed.
But, if the verb ends in a vowel followed by a –y you just add the –ed.
- If the verb ends in –c add a –k before adding the –ed.
Please note that in British English, if the verb ends with a vowel followed by a –l, the –l is doubled before adding the –ed. This would be the case of travel changing to travelled instead of traveled as it is in American English.
Simple Past with Irregular Verbs
Irregular verbs don’t follow an exact pattern and therefore you will need to memorize each of them. Fortunately, some irregular verbs show conjugation similarities, and can therefore be grouped together, making it easier to memorize them.
Below you can find a list of some common irregular verbs in their simple past form:
How to Use Past Simple?
According to the British Council, you may use the simple past tense to talk or write about the following situations:
- Something that previously happened: Last year we organized a surprise party for my husband and he almost had a heart attack when he came in and saw everybody in our living room.
- Something that happened repeatedly in the past: A long time ago, when I was in college, I always took the bus to get to the campus. I prefer to take a stroll, nowadays I actually walk to work, but the city where I studied is quite big and it really wasn´t within a viable walking distance.
- Something that was true for a certain period of time: My daughter loved to play the piano at the Christmas Shows during her primary school days, but then she became shy and didn’t want to continue appearing in any musical performances or school shows. In fact, she quit playing all string instruments in her teens, which is a shame, because she had a natural talent for music and we spent a lot of money on piano lessons. I hope she will pick it up again in the future.
Simple Past Negative
To construct a negative in the simple past tense you have to add –did not before the verb in its root form. It is important to notice that –did not can be abbreviated as –didn’t.
Did + not + root form of verb
Didn’t + root form of verb
- I liked the film. | I did not like the film.
- She moved to Los Angeles last week. | She didn’t move to Los Angeles last week.
- We saw your uncle at the bus stop. | We did not see your uncle at the bus stop.
- You went to school with Mrs. Smith’s son, you probably remember him? | You didn’t go to school with Mrs. Smith’s son, you probably don’t remember him.
- My boyfriend wrote me a beautiful card on Valentine’s Day, he did not forget. | My boyfriend did not write me a beautiful card on Valentine’s Day, he forgot.
How to formulate questions in past tense?
To ask a question you need to add –did at the beginning of the sentence followed by the subject or pronoun and then the verb in its root form, finishing with the question mark.
Did + subject + root form of verb (?)
Did not + subject + root form of verb (?)
- Did you make your bed this morning?
- Did she like her present?
- Did it hurt?
- Did we close the door?
- Didn’t you tell her that you were leaving work early?
- Didn’t he mention my name?
- Didn’t I say I was born in India?
Formulating questions with –who is easier because you use the simple past form of the verb straight after.
- Who wrote that novel?
- Who made it to the final match?
- Who skipped math class?
- Who was at the party last night?
Remember that for irregular verbs the root form (infinitive tense) and the simple past tense may change, so you should always check whether it is a regular or an irregular verb you are using.
Finally, for the verb –to be you start the question using –were or –was, depending on the pronoun.
- I was at the place where the speech took place. | Was I at the place where the speech took place?
- It was terrible. | Was it terrible?
- You were behind me. | Were you behind me?
- We were upset. | Were we upset?