The simple past (also called past simple, past indefinite or preterite) is a verb tense which is used to show that a completed action took place at a specific time in the past. The simple past is also frequently used to talk about past habits and generalizations. Read on for detailed descriptions, examples, and Join Learn It Town's All Access Pass for exercises and classes.
Simple Past Forms
The simple past is formed using the verb + ed. In addition, there are many verbs with irregular past forms. Questions are made with did and negative forms are made with did not.
Statement: You called Debbie.
Question: Did you call Debbie?
Negative: You did not call Debbie.
Complete List of Simple Past Forms
Simple Past Uses
1. Completed Action in the Past
Use the simple past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Sometimes, the speaker may not actually mention the specific time, but they do have one specific time in mind.
I saw a movie yesterday.
I didn't see a play yesterday.
Last year, I traveled to Japan.
Last year, I didn't travel to Korea.
Did you have dinner last night?
She washed her car.
He didn't wash his car.
2. A Series of Completed Actions
We use the simple past to list a series of completed actions in the past. These actions happen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on.
I finished work, walked to the beach, and found a nice place to swim.
He arrived from the airport at 8:00, checked into the hotel at 9:00, and met the others at 10:00.
Did you add flour, pour in the milk, and then add the eggs?
3. Duration in the Past
The simple past can be used with a duration which starts and stops in the past. A duration is a longer action often indicated by expressions such as: for two years, for five minutes, all day, all year, etc.
I lived in Brazil for two years.
Shauna studied Japanese for five years.
They sat at the beach all day.
They did not stay at the party the entire time.
We talked on the phone for thirty minutes.
A: How long did you wait for them? B: We waited for one hour.
4. Habits in the Past
The simple past can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as "used to." To make it clear that we are talking about a habit, we often add expressions such as: always, often, usually, never, when I was a child, when I was younger, etc.
I studied French when I was a child.
He played the violin.
He didn't play the piano.
Did you play a musical instrument when you were a kid?
She worked at the movie theater after school.
They never went to school, they always skipped class.
5. Past Facts or Generalizations
The simple past can also be used to describe past facts or generalizations which are no longer true. As in USE 4 above, this use of the simple past is quite similar to the expression "used to."
She was shy as a child, but now she is very outgoing.
He didn't like tomatoes before.
Did you live in Texas when you were a kid?
People paid much more to make cell phone calls in the past.
Simple Past Tips
IMPORTANT When-Clauses Happen First
Clauses are groups of words which have meaning but are often not complete sentences. Some clauses begin with the word "when" such as "when I dropped my pen..." or "when class began..." These clauses are called when-clauses, and they are very important. The examples below contain when-clauses.
When I paid her one dollar, she answered my question.
She answered my question when I paid her one dollar.
When-clauses are important because they always happen first when both clauses are in the simple past. Both of the examples above mean the same thing: first, I paid her one dollar, and then, she answered my question. It is not important whether "when I paid her one dollar" is at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. However, the example below has a different meaning. First, she answered my question, and then, I paid her one dollar.
I paid her one dollar when she answered my question.
The examples below show the placement for grammar adverbs such as: always, only, never, ever, still, just, etc.
You just called Debbie.
Did you just call Debbie?
ACTIVE / PASSIVE
Tom repaired the car. Active
The car was repaired by Tom. Passive