English grammar – Past simple

Quick reference

Form

Regular verbs: verb + d or ed
Irregular verbs: see list of irregular verbs

Meaning

Past simple is used to talk about finished actions and time.

  • I went there last year.
  • You lived in Paris when you were younger, didn’t you?
  • He worked there in 1980.
  • She saw him yesterday.
  • We didn’t see Jack and Liz at the party last night.
  • What did they talk about at the meeting in Zurich?

Pronunciation

See the phonemic chart for IPA symbols used below.

With regular verbs, the pronunciation of the d or ed ending depends on the last phoneme of the verb.

  1. If the last phoneme of the verb is /d/ or /t/, we add a syllable, pronouncing the ending /ɪd/
    • land (one syllable) – landed (two syllables): /lændɪd/
    • start (one syllable) – started (two syllables): /stɑːtɪd/
  2. If the last phoneme of the verb is a vowel, a diphthong, /b/, /dʒ/, /g/, /v/, /ð/, /z/, /ʒ/, /m/, /n/or /ŋ/, we don’t add a syllable and the ending is pronounced/d/
    • snooze (one syllable) – snoozed (one syllable): /snuːzd/
    • line (one syllable) – lined (one syllable): /laɪnd/
  3. If the last phoneme of the verb is /p/, /tʃ/, /k/, /f/, /θ/, /s/ or /ʃ/, we don’t add a syllable and the ending is pronounced /t/
    • hope (one syllable) – hoped (one syllable): /həʊpt/
    • pick (one syllable) – picked (one syllable): /pɪkt/

Past simple in detail

Past simple form

Past simple – regular verbs

We form the past simple with the past tense form of the verb. Some verbs are what we call regular verbs, and to make the past tense form we simply need to add “ed” to the base form:

  • played
  • worked
  • laughed

Some regular verbs already end in “e” and so we only need to add “d”:

  • lived
  • hoped
  • located

Here are some examples of past simple statements with regular verbs:

  • We lived in Sydney for about 5 years.
  • The children played all weekend.
  • They laughed until it hurt.

Past simple – irregular verbs

Many verns in English are irregular. If a verb is irregular its past tense form (and/or past participle form) is made in an irregular way. There are quite a few different ways in which it can be irregular, as you can see from these examples:

Base form Past tense form
become became
catch caught
do did
leave left
sing sang
tear tore

You can find a full list of irregular verbs here. Here are some examples of past simple statements with irregular verbs:

  • He caught the ball with his left hand.
  • The band sang 12 songs before they left the stage.
  • It became dark very quickly.

Past simple – be

The verb “be” has two different past tense forms, “was” and “were”:

First person singular I was
Second person singular you were
Third person singular he / she / it was
First person plural we were
Second person plural you were
Third person plural they were

Past simple questions

To make past simple questions we use subject-auxiliary inversion. This means that we swap around the position of the auxiliary verb and the subject. However, as you can see in the sentences above, there is no auxiliary verb in past simple statements. This means that, if we want to make a question, we have to add one. The auxiliary verb we add for past simple questions is “do”, in its past tense form, “did”.

Here are some yes/no questions in past simple using subject/auxiliary inversion:

  • Did you live in Sydney?
  • Did he catch the ball with his left hand?
  • Did the children play all weekend?

As you can see the main verb (live, catch, play) has gone back to its base form each time (we don’t say “Did you lived in Sydney?”) This is because we’ve already indicated that the questions are in past simple by using the past tense form of the auxiliary verb, so we don’t need to indicate it again.

Here are some examples of object and adverb questions, adding a question word to the beginning of the questions:

  • What did you do in Sydney?
  • Why did he catch the ball with his left hand?
  • Where did the children play all weekend?

For past simple subject questions, the question word just replaces the subject, like this:

  • Who lived in Sydney?
  • Who caught the ball with his left hand?
  • Who played all weekend?

Past simple negatives

To make a negative past simple sentence we use the auxiliary verb (did) and “not”. Here are some examples:

  • We did not live in Sydney.
  • He did not catch the ball with his left hand.
  • The children did not play all weekend.

We can use contractions in informal spoken English:

  • We didn’t live in Sydney.
  • He didn’t catch the ball with his left hand.
  • The children didn’t play all weekend.

Past simple meaning

Now that we’ve seen how to make a past simple sentence, let’s have a look at why we use it – its meaning. Its name gives us a clue – it is the simplest form of the past tense and the meanings it gives us about the past are fairly plain and simple too.

Completed events in the past

We use past simple to describe single actions (or occurrences or states) which started and finished before the time of speaking. Sometimes we specifically mention the time when the action was completed with an adverb or adverbial phrase like “yesterday” or “two weeks ago”:

  • I went to Dubai last year.
  • They lived in Paris in 2006.
  • I finished the report two weeks ago.

Sometimes, though, the specific time of the action is implied and so we don’t need to mention it. In the conversation below, when Jane mentions “breakfast” it is clear that she is talking about this morning.

  • John: Are you hungry?
    Jane: Yes, I didn’t have breakfast.

We can also talk about sequences of completed events, like this:

  • I got up at 6 o’clock, had a shower and went for a walk.
  • Goldilocks ate all the porridge, sat in all the chairs and slept in all the beds.

When we use adverbs and adverbial phrases like “last year”, “in 2006” and “at 6 o’clock” we are specifying an exact time that an event happened in the past. Sometimes though, we want to emphasise that fact that the event lasted for some time – its duration. To do this we can use different adverbs and adverbial phrases, like “for five years”, “all day” and “for a long time”. Have a look at these sentences:

  • I talked with my mother on the phone last night.
  • I talked with my mother on the phone for 2 hours.

In both sentences the events are completed – they started and finished before the time of speaking. In the first sentence we are specifying the exact time when the event happened. In the second sentence though we are emphasising how long the event lasted. Here’s another example:

  • I went to the beach yesterday.
  • I stayed at the beach all day.

Again, in the first sentence we state when the event happened, and in the second sentence we emphasise how long it lasted.

Repeated or regular events in the past

We can use past simple with adverbs of frequency to talk about repeated or regular actions that are finished in the past. As well as using adverbs of frequency we often use expressions like “a lot” and “all the time”. Here are some examples:

  • I played tennis a lot when I was younger.
  • When I was at school I did two hours of homework every day.

Past simple additional points

Is past simple a tense or an aspect?

The past simple is an aspect of the past tense. A tense tells us when an event occurs, and an aspect tells us how an event occurs, or how it is viewed by the speaker, in terms of its frequency, its duration, and whether or not it is completed. You can find a detailed explanation of tenses and aspects here.

Related grammar points

Past Continuous
Present Simple
Tense and aspect

5 teaching ideas and comments

  1. Richard

    I first make statements in the present using a weekly schedule, then I tell students what I did last week.

    She goes to the movies on Fridays.
    She went to the movies last Friday

    Did she go to the movies last Friday?
    Yes, she did. Or Yes, she went to the movies last Friday.

    Did she go to the movies last Thursday?
    No, she didn’t. Or No, she didn’t go to the movies last Thursday.

    When did she go to the movies?
    She went to the movies last Friday.

  2. Jessica

    Tic-tac-toe is a fun game to practice the simple past. Divide the class into two groups (one is X the other is O). Stick or draw the squares on the board. Put verbs (infinitives) with ? + or – in each square.

    X group chooses a square and constructs a positive/negative sentence or question using the verb in that square. For example:

    GO ?
    Where did you go on holiday last year?

    HAVE +
    I had a bad day yesterday.

    BE –
    I wasn’t here last week.

    If the group makes a correct sentence, X or O goes in that square. This continues until one group has XXX in a line or OOO in a line.

  3. Anonymous

    Draw two columns on the board – one side is for verbs and the other for nouns. Students think of lots of random verbs and nouns. For example:

    eat house
    speak pen
    steal London
    marry elephant

    Students then try to make a sentence with these two words in the past tense.

  4. Ana

    I like playing a game I call Who was I?

    One student thinks about someone famous who has died and the others ask him yes/no questions to try to find out who the person is. For example:

    “Was this person American?
    “Was this person a man?”
    “Did he play music?”

  5. Anna

    I ask my students to write several verbs (about 10) on the board. We revise the past simple of all these verbs and then the students make up a story using all the verbs in past simple. The first student starts with the first verb. The second one goes on with the following verb and so on. They continue until there are no more verbs left.

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