The past simple is one of the most commonly used tenses in English. We mostly use this tense to describe finished actions that happened in the past. However, there are other uses besides this. Let’s explore the correct uses of the past simple tense and look at some common mistakes to avoid. Check out the interactive exercises at the end to test your knowledge!
The past simple is the base form of the past tense in English. We use it to refer to an action or event that was completed before now – e.g. I played tennis yesterday. The formula is: subject + verb with ‘–ed’. Some signal words for this tense are: before, ago, yesterday, last year.
We can use the past simple tense to describe actions that took place in the past. They started and finished in the past, without necessarily a specific time in mind. However, time expressions can still be used when giving more detail about the past time when the action took place.
Last week, I played rugby with some friends.
I hurt my leg while tackling another player.
It took me a couple of days to recover!
The past simple tense can be used in a similar way to talk about a series of actions that took place in the past. These will be formatted as a list of things that happened one after the other. This is very common in storytelling and spoken narratives.
Rachel woke up, turned off her alarm, and went back to bed.
She finally got up, brushed her teeth, and went downstairs.
She then had breakfast, read the paper and watched some TV.
Another common use of the past simple is to describe habits that took place in the past. This is also used in storytelling and to talk casually about things you usually did before. These past habits may be old or they have only stopped recently, but they are not ongoing now.
When we were young, my brother and I always fought.
We argued for hours about all kinds of things!
After leaving home, we stopped fighting and became much closer.
The past simple tense can be used with time expressions to talk about how long something lasted. Some examples of time expressions that can be used are: for a while, for a week, for a short time.
It took me ages to drive to the stadium.
The rugby match lasted 80 minutes.
The first half went on for 40 minutes, plus injury time.
An interesting use of the past simple is to describe facts from the past. In addition, you can make generalisations about things that happened in the past.
Our planet’s continents and oceans were formed over a very long time.
Dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the Jurassic Period.
They became extinct around 65 million years ago.
There can be affirmative (positive), negative, and questioning functions for all the uses of the past simple. To form the affirmative of past simple tense for regular verbs, use the root form of the verb, then add ‘-ed’ to the end.
Formula = Subject + verb with ‘-ed’
Rachel played the guitar.
Jack walked to school this morning.
Note that English also has many irregular verbs that do not follow this rule! You should learn these separately as they do not take the ‘-ed’ ending. Some common examples include: go/went, be/was/were, sit/sat, tell/told, say/said, write/wrote, speak/spoke, make/made.
John sat on the chair.
Sarah wrote an email to her friend.
How to conjugate verbs in the past simple tense in the affirmative:
|Affirmative||‘to love’||‘to be’||‘to speak’||‘to make’|
|1st person singular||I loved||I was||I spoke||I made|
|2nd person singular||You loved||You were||You spoke||You made|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it loved||He/she/it was||He/she/it spoke||He/she/it made|
|1st person plural||We loved||We were||We spoke||We made|
|2nd person plural||You loved||You were||You spoke||You made|
|3rd person plural||They loved||They were||They spoke||They made|
To form the negative, we use the past form of the auxiliary verb ‘to do’ (‘did’) and place it after the subject. Then we place ‘not’ after the auxiliary to make it negative. Finally, we use the root form of the verb (without the ‘-ed’ ending!).
Formula = Subject + did + not + root verb (bare infinitive, without ‘to’)
I did not want to leave the party.
I did not order a taxi home.
How to conjugate verbs in the past simple tense in the negative:
|Negative||‘to love’||‘to be’||‘to speak’||‘to make’|
|1st person singular||I did not love||I was not||I did not speak||I did not make|
|2nd person singular||You did not love||You were not||You did not speak||You did not make|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it did not love||He/she/it was not||He/she/it did not speak||He/she/it did not make|
|1st person plural||We did not love||We were not||We did not speak||We did not make|
|2nd person plural||You did not love||You were not||You did not speak||You did not make|
|3rd person plural||They did not love||They were not||They did not speak||They did not make|
To form the interrogative (a question), put ‘did’ before the subject. After the subject comes the root form of the verb. Don’t forget to include a question mark (?) at the end!
Formula = Did + subject + root verb
Did Jack attend the meeting this morning?
Did I say that to you?
To form an interrogative that is negative, place ‘not’ after the subject. With contracted forms, place ‘not’ after ‘did’. Note that native speakers prefer to use contractions in spoken English and less formal writing so these usually sound more natural.
Didn’t you buy any food for dinner?
Did you not see the fireworks? (more formal)
How to conjugate verbs in the past simple tense in the interrogative:
|Interrogative||‘to love’||‘to be’||‘to speak’||‘to make’|
|1st person singular||Did I love||Was I||Did I speak||Did I make|
|2nd person singular||Did you love||Were you||Did you speak||Did you make|
|3rd person singular||Did he/she/it love||Was he/she/it||Did he/she/it speak||Did he/she/it make|
|1st person plural||Did we love||Were we||Did we speak||Did we make|
|2nd person plural||Did you love||Were you||Did you speak||Did you make|
|3rd person plural||Did they love||Were they||Did they speak||Did they make|
For events that started in the past and are still ongoing now, learners sometimes try to use the past simple. However, the correct tense to use in this situation is the present perfect.
I didn’t finish my homework yet. (incorrect)
I haven’t finished my homework yet. (correct, present perfect)
The auxiliary verb ‘to do’ is needed when forming a negative or interrogative in the past simple tense (with the exception of ‘to be’). It is a common mistake to leave it out.
John ___ not go to work this morning. (incorrect)
John didn’t go to work this morning. (correct)
So many verbs in the past simple tense use the regular ‘-ed’ ending so it is natural to think all English verbs behave in this way. But they don’t! Make sure to learn the correct forms for irregular verbs to avoid making mistakes.
I writed my essay last week. (incorrect)
I wrote my essay last week. (correct)
When the auxiliary verb is used to form interrogatives and negatives in the past simple tense, the root form of the verb follows. It is a mistake to use the past form of the verb.
Did they left on time? (incorrect)
Did they leave on time? (correct)
Test your understanding of the past simple with these interactive exercises. Select the correct answer for each of the questions and get your score at the end of the quiz. You can also share your result via social media and challenge your friends to try it too!