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Mastering the Past Simple

Updated: Jun 23


Week 3 of your summer grammar tenses revision is all about the past. The past simple tense is one of the most fundamental tenses, because it allows us to talk about actions or events that occurred in the past. If you missed weeks 1 and 2, click here to read about the present simple and the present continuous before jumping into this post on the past!

 

Usage and Significance


The past simple tense is used to describe completed actions or events that happened at a specific point in the past. It is often used to narrate past experiences, discuss historical events, or talk about events that no longer occur. By using the past simple, we bring the listener or reader into a specific timeframe and provide a clear understanding of when an action took place by using past time expressions. Check out these examples:

  1. I went to the park yesterday. It was a beautiful day and I met some friends there.

  2. Queen Elizabeth reigned for 70 years!

  3. I played basketball when I was in elementary school.

Since we use the past simple to give generally specific details about the past, we normally use some type of time expression so that our listener understands not only what, but also when. Unlike the present simple, these expressions can be used or at the beginning or at the end of a sentence, but never in the middle. Here are some of the most common past time expressions that you can use with the past simple:


Past simple time expression

Example

Yesterday

​They went to the park yesterday.

​Last + week, month, year, century

​Last year, the weather was much sunnier.

​amount of time + ago

​I moved to Turin 2 years ago.

​in + year (2020, 1989, 1492)

​He was born in 1985.

when + period of time

When I was a child, I lived in the USA.


 

Formation and Structure


The formation of the past simple tense varies depending on the verb type. The good thing about the past simple is that all subjects have the same verb form, so you don't have to worry about changing the verb for the 3rd person singular. Now, the regular verbs are pretty simple, at least as far as spelling goes. To form the past simple for regular verbs, we usually add "-ed" to the base form of the verb. As always, there are some exceptions, so look at the chart below for details.

Regular verbs

​Verbs ending in -e

Verbs ending in -y

​base form + ed

walk --> walked

​base form + d

argue --> argued

​eliminate y and add -ied

cry --> cried


Unfortunately, irregular verbs, on the other hand, do not follow a consistent pattern. These verbs have unique forms in the past simple tense, which need to be memorized individually. I HATE the word memorize, but in this case, you don't really have much of a choice. Practice makes better, so just keep using them until they stick in your head. You can download this free PDF for a list of all the irregular verbs, yay lucky you!

Complete list of IRR verbs
.pdf
Download PDF • 182KB

In negative and interrogative sentences, we use the helping verb "did" to form the past simple. This is easy to forget, but try not to! See the chart below for how to form negative and interrogative sentences:

​Past simple negative

​Past simple interrogative

Subject + didn't + base form of the verb​


I didn't work yesterday.

She didn't go to the store last week.

Did + subject + base form of the verb


Did you work yesterday?

Did she go to the store last week?


 

Common Mistakes to Avoid


It's totally normal to make mistakes in the past tense, but the more you practice the less you will make!

1. Incorrect verb form: Be careful when using irregular verbs in the past simple. Remember to use the correct form of the verb, as irregular verbs do not follow regular patterns.


2. Overusing or forgetting"did": Avoid overusing the helping verb "did" in affirmative sentences. You don't need to use it in an affirmative sentence but you must use it when making a negative sentence (didn't) or a question (did...?).


3. Lack of time expressions: The past simple is often used in conjunction with specific time markers, such as "yesterday," "last week," or "in 2005." Be sure to include these words to provide a clear timeframe for the past action or event.


4. Confusion with present perfect: Differentiating between the past simple and present perfect can be challenging for non-native English speakers. The past simple focuses on actions or events that happened at a specific time in the past, while the present perfect emphasizes a connection between the past and the present. We will see more on this in week 5 when we talk about the present perfect.

 

Every verb tense has its own difficulties, so try to remember to pay attention to verb forms, use appropriate time expressions, and use the past simple to give specific details and information about the past. Add the diagram below to your tenses review folder on your computer or phone so you can refer to it anytime you have a doubt!



 

Glossary

  • jumping into [something]: in this context we're not talking about a swimming pool, but that's the idea. You can use this expression to say to begin something new and perhaps difficult or tedious.

  • timeframe: a specified period of time

  • as far as [something] goes: idiom to say, "with regards to"

  • stick in your head: idiom to say "to remember" (imagine you have a post-it on your forehead!)

  • in conjunction with: a fancy way to say "together with"

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