The Past Simple Tense

Talking about finished actions, facts, and habits in the past

The Past Simple tense (or Simple Past), sometimes called the preterit in English grammar, is a highly used verb tense for referring to finished past activities. At its core, the Past Simple is used to refer to isolated actions that started and were completed at a well-defined time in the past. To know more, read these sections of our review on the Past Simple in English.

1. Slogan
2. Usages
3. Form
4. Common time expressions
5. Negative sentences and question types
6. Summary

1. Slogan: “It happened, I know when, and that’s it !”

The slogan encapsulates the basic meaning of the Past Simple, so use it when hesitating about what verb form to choose in your English writing. Remembering one short slogan can help you navigate through all the grammar rules it relates to.

2. Usages

Read through the table and try to understand the connection between the usages and the slogan.

1. completed
past action
• I bought a new car yesterday.
• Columbus reached America in 1492.
• William Shakespeare wrote many plays.
• These are short actions or events performed and completed in the past. We either know exactly when they happened or infer this from context.
• The fact that both Columbus and Shakespeare are dead (in the certain past), calls for using the Past Simple, with or without stating the time of the action.

2. discontinued
past fact
• As children, we were quite messy.
• The data showed an increase in sales last month.
• These facts were true in the past but are not true now. The period when these facts were true in is both finished and defined (childhood, last month).
3. finished past state
• Michelle lived in Paris for 5 years.
• She worked in Versailles during her first marriage.
• At first, she believed that her career was more important than family life.
• Paris was her permanent place of residence for 5 years. This period in her life is over. She does not live there now.
• She worked in Versailles only during the years of her first marriage. When she got divorced, she stopped working there.
• Also for expressing beliefs and opinions in the past that are not true now. She does not believe that anymore.
4. terminated past habit
• Before the accident, she played tennis twice a week.
• He drove a Ferrari for 20 years.
• They did these actions regularly, as habits, only in the past. They do not practice these habits anymore.

Watch out !

• If the action occurred in the past, but is still true ( I have been teaching grammar for 10 years.) or happened at an undefined time in the past ( I have seen some good French movies recently.), you need the Present Perfect tenses.

Stative verbs (appear, realize, love, sound) are more commonly used with simple tenses rather than with progressive tenses.

Advanced Usage of the Past Simple:
5. sequence of past activities
• I went out dancing until very late, slept for 4 hours, woke up and took a shower. On my way to work, I met the guy from yesterday’s party and…
• Short actions that happened one right after the other, as in story-telling and reporting.
6. habits in the past with
“used to”
• As children, our mother used to read us bedtime stories.
• I used to eat butter a lot, but now I don’t touch it. I didn't use to drink coffee, though.
• Actions or habits repeated in the past that are no longer practiced.

3. Form

As its name suggests, the Past Simple form is a simple one-word verb, composed of the Past Simple or V2 (preterit) form for all persons. Unlike other languages, there are no inflectional verb endings for the different persons in English past tenses. However, since English verbs include a large group of commonly used irregular verbs, which have a variety of unique Past Simple forms, you have to invest time and effort in learning these irregular verbs.

A regular verb in the Past Simple has an ed ending for all persons.
play-play ed, work-work ed, stay-stay ed, listen-listen ed

An irregular verb in the Past Simple changes its form, usually with a vowel change. Irregular verbs can be grouped according to certain change patterns, which helps to memorize them.
speak-spoke, eat-ate, see-saw, fly-flew, think-thought

Subject Main verb Rest of sentence
subject V2 regular verb
Michelle lived in Paris for 2 years.
subject V2 irregular verb
Dan went home early yesterday.

*Remember: V1=base form, V2=Past Simple, V3=Past Participle, Ving=Present Participle
• One verb in English has special forms in the Past Simple:

to be
I was
you, we, they were
he, she, it was

My mother was a teacher for 30 years, and my grandparents were both college professors.

4. Common Time Expressions

The Past Simple is used with time expressions (in blue) informing about when things exactly happened.

Subject Verb Place Time
I went there yesterday.
You traveled abroad last month / year.
Dan / He swam at the pool last week.
Sheila / She stayed with us a month ago.
We studied at the library on Sunday.
You worked here between 1993 and 2002.
My parents / They got divorced in London when I was a child.

5. Negative Sentences and Question Types in the Past Simple

Negative Statements:

Subject Auxiliary verb+not Main verb Rest of sentence
I, you, we, they did not /
work yesterday.

Watch out !
Note that in negative past sentences, the main verb is in its base form and not in the V2 Past Simple form, as the past ending is attached to the auxiliary verb do, resulting in did.

The 3 Question Types:

1. Yes/No Questions:

Auxiliary verb Subject Main verb Rest of sentence
Did you work yesterday ?

2. Wh Questions:

Wh question
Auxiliary verb Subject Main verb Rest of sentence
When did you work ?
Where did you work ?

3. Wh-Subject Questions:

Wh subject
Main verb Rest of sentence
Who worked here ?
What made all that noise ?

Watch out !
• Note that in Wh-subject-questions, there is no need for an auxiliary verb.
• In Wh subject-questions in the Past Simple, the verb is always in the V2 Past Simple form.

6. Summary

This has been a review about the usage and formation of the Past Simple tense in English grammar. It is highly used to refer to actions accomplished and finished in defined periods in the past that are over. Reviewing the rules is not enough to make you use it properly. The more you pick it up in your reading, and more importantly, use it in your writing, the better you will use it.

Grammar Guide Index