The Simple Past Tense in English

The Simple Past Tense in EnglishPast Simple as the basic English narrative tense. Learn all its forms, spellings, meanings and modifiers.

Past Simple/Indefinite is the default past tense, denoting completed activity. It has the second verb form.

I read a book about astrology last night.

Interrogative and negative Past Simple have the helping verb did before infinitive, also making up past mini-answers. Negative Past Simple is did not = didn’t. Did isn’t used in negatives and questions with was/were and modal verbs, subject questions.

Was the weather good when you were on holiday?

Who opened this window?

? +
did sb do sth sb did sth sb didn’t do sth

Past Spelling

Regular verbs (as most verbs) end in –ed in the past. Verbs in a consonant + y change it to –ied in the past.

hurry – hurried, study – studied, apply – applied, try – tried

Verbs already in –e add only –d in the past.

hope – hoped, smile – smiled, dance – danced, confuse – confused

End consonants are doubled in multi-syllable verbs with end stress.

prefer – preferred, regret – regretted, permit – permitted

British English doubles end –l before –ed.

travel – travelled, cancel – cancelled

Irregular Past

Irregular verbs are fewer but more important and so to be memorized. Some irregular verbs have the same 3 forms.

hit – hit – hit

Other irregulars have the same last 2 forms.

tell – told – told

The other irregulars have 3 different forms.

wake – woke – woken

The following verbs may be (ir)regular. Their irregular form is typical of British English.

burn – burned/burnt, dream – dreamed/dreamt [dremt], lean – leaned/leant [lent], learn – learned/learnt, smell – smelled/smelt, spell – spelled/spelt, spill – spilled/spilt, spoil – spoiled/spoilt

Past Simple Meanings

  • completed events (with stated/known/implied timing)

They went camping by the lake last month.

I never learnt to swim as a child.

  • successive past actions

First she paid the driver, then she got out of the taxi.

He cooked the dinner when I arrived.

  • outdated habits/states (= used to)

Kitchens were very different a hundred years ago.

We went out for a meal every evening on holiday.

He smoked for most of his life.

In 1950 there were fewer than 50 million cars in use around the world.

  • unlikely conditions (in clauses)

It’s high time he arrived.

I wish it wasn’t true.

What if it all happened to me before?

Time Reference

  • time adverb(ials)

yesterday, then, when, how long ago, last night/week, year, ago, in the year

I went to Spain a couple of years ago and I visited Italy a few times as a child.

Were you busy this morning?

I had a bath at 8 o’clock.

At the time I had a poorly-paid job in the local shop.

Your mother phoned a few minutes ago.

He got up at 7 every morning to go to work.

She worked there for 40 years.