I think that the simple past tense in English is one of the easiest tenses of the language. In this article, I hope to show you that.
This tense is also sometimes referred to as the past indefinite.
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When to Use the Simple Past Tense
This tense is used for actions that was finished in the past. Sometimes we get time words (also called signal words) that indicate that the action was finished in the past. I will give you a list of these words in the following section.
The children played in the park yesterday.
Queen Elizabeth was the queen of Great Britain.
We use this tense fore stories or lists of events. When we are writing a story about something in the past, we used the simple past for the actions and past progressive for background information.
Ann went to school. Some children were playing on the playground. She decided to go sit with her friends.
Sometimes we talk about things that finished in the past in another tense such as the past perfect or past progressive. In these cases we can use the past indefinite to give extra information.
I have already done my homework. It was very easy.
Another use for the past simple is when we talk about things that are not real and won’t be real in the future. We can also use it after “wish” and other similar words.
If he had learned for the test, he might have passed.
I wish I could read faster.
Simple Past Tense Signal Words
- a specific time in the past
“Yesterday” is used before “morning”, “afternoon” and “evening”.
Sue went to the shop yesterday morning.
“Last” is used before “night” and long periods of time such as “week”, “month”, “year”, “summer” etc…
We went to the beach last summer.
“Ago” is used after specific lengths of time like “three days”, “six months”, “five years” etc…
I was in America a week ago.
“To Be” Past Tense
The past tense of “to be” is “was” and “were”.
I, he, she and it take “was” and all the others take “were”. Remember the snake that I used to explain this in my English verb conjugation post? If not, that’s okay. Here is a recap:
Some people are scared, so they have to take a snake with them wherever they go. In the present tense, only “he”, “she” and “it” are afraid, so only they take their snake body guard with. But in the past “I” used to be afraid too, so, in the past tense verbs used with “I” also get an “s” at the end.
In the case of “to be”, “I”, “he”, “she” and “it” go with was and all the others use “were”. Here is a full conjugation table for this:
The recipe for past tense sentences when the main verb is “to be”, is as follows:
SUBJECT + WAS/WERE + THE REST OF THE SENTENCE
I was at work today.
She was at work yesterday.
They were at work on Wednesday.
Verbs That are not “to be” in the Simple Past
The verb “to be” is used in ways very different to other verbs. There are two categories of these other verbs namely, verbs ending on “-ed” in the past tense i.e. regular verbs as well as irregular verbs.
Here is how these verbs are used in positive affirmative (positive) sentences in particular.
Spelling of Verbs Ending with “-ed”
If the end of the verb is a consonant followed by an “-e”, just add “-d”.
arrive – arrived
erase – erased
smile – smiled
For one-syllable verbs ending on a vowel and one consonant that is stressed, double the consonant and add “-ed”.
stop – stopped
rub – rubbed
jog – jogged
However, if a one-syllable verbs ends on a vowel and one consonant that is not stressed, don’t double the consonant, just add “-ed”.
fix – fixed
snow – snowed
shout – shouted
If the verb more than one syllable and the stress is on the last syllable, you also double the consonant and add “-ed”.
prefer – preferred
admit – admitted
occur – occurred
But if the stress in a verb with more than one syllable ending on a vowel and one consonant is on any other syllable than the last, just add “-ed”.
offer – offered
gather – gathered
quiver – quivered
When the verb ends on two vowels followed by one consonant or if it ends on two consonants, don’t double the consonant and add “-ed”.
need – needed
rain – rained
count – counted
help – helped
Verbs ending on a consonant followed by a “-y”, change the “-y” to “-i” and add “-ed”
carry – carried
terrify – terrified
study – studied
However, if it ends on a vowel plus a “-y”, just add “-ed”
play – played
enjoy – enjoyed
Irregular Verbs in the Past Indefinite
Irregular verbs are verbs that changes in a way that we cannot predict. For example:
eat – ate
drink – drank
find – found
For a more comprehensive list of these verbs, take a look at my post with an English verb list.
Affirmative Sentences in English with Verbs not “to be”
Like with the all other English tenses, the verb comes after the subject of the sentence. However, the cool thing about the past tense is that you only have to conjugate the verb when you are using “to be”. If the main verb is not “to be”, then you don’t have to worry about when to add an “s” or any such thing to the end of the sentence.
Here is the recipe for these sentences:
SUBJECT + PAST FORM OF THE VERB + REST OF THE SENTENCE
Here are some examples of affirmative sentences in English when the main verb is not “to be”:
He ate a sandwich yesterday.
They went to the zoo last week.
Sue walked to school two days ago.
Negatives in the Past Tense When the Verb is “to be”
We can make sentences in the simple past with “to be” as the main verb negative by adding “not” after the conjugated form of “to be”. Here is the recipe:
SUBJECT + WAS/WERE + NOT + REST OF THE SENTENCE
Here are some examples:
I was not ill last week.
She was not at home last night.
Also, we can contract not as follows:
was not – wasn’t
were not – weren’t
Verbs That are not “to be” in Negative Sentences in the Simple Past
Like with affirmative sentences, you don’t have to worry about conjugation when you are using the negative in the past indefinite when the verb is not “to be”. Here is the recipe for these sentences:
SUBJECT + DID NOT + INFINITIVE FORM OF THE MAIN VERB + REST OF THE SENTENCE
Okay, so the infinitive of the main verb is the form that you would use in the present tense without an “s”. It is really important that you notice that there can only be one past tense verb in a sentence. Because we already have the past form of “do” namely, “did”, the main verb has to be in the infinitive.
Here are some examples:
Mark did not eat his breakfast this morning.
Ann did not go to school last week.
Peter did not do is homework yesterday.
Once again we can contract “not” by making “did not” one. It will look like this: “didn’t”. Here are some examples:
Sue didn’t sleep last night.
Ann didn’t go for a run yesterday.
Past Tense Questions
“Yes” or “No” Questions
“No” and “Yes” Questions With “to be”
When the main verb of the sentence is “to be” and you are making a “yes” or “no” question, the question starts with the conjugated form of the verb.
Here is the recipe for these sentences:
WAS/WERE + SUBJECT + REST OF THE QUESTION?
Here are some examples:
Were you a student?
Was he in class?
Verbs That are not “to be” and “Yes” or “No” Questions
However, if the question’s main verb is not “to be”, the question starts with the conjugated form of “do”. The past form of “do” is “did” for everyone. The main verb will then not be in the past tense, because you can only have one verb in the past in a sentence. The main verb has to be in the infinitive form.
The recipe for these sentences are as follows:
DID + SUBJECT + INFINITIVE FROM OF THE MAIN VERB + REST OF THE QUESTION?
Here are some example sentences:
Did you eat the last piece of cake?
Did Karen go to class yesterday?
Questions With Question Words
Question words are the little words that we add to the start of a question. These include all the “wh-” question words and “how”. Here is a list with these words:
The recipe for questions with question words are pretty much the same as for “yes” and “no” questions. The only difference is that you add a question word to the start.
Questions with Question Words when the Verb is “to be”
Here is the recipe if the main verb is “to be”:
QUESTION WORD + WAS/WERE + SUBJECT + REST OF THE QUESTION?
Take a look at these examples:
How was the weather yesterday?
When were you in San Fransisco?
Where was Mary last week?
Questions with Question Words when the Main Verb is not “to be”
If the main verb is not “to be”, like with affirmative sentences, we use the past tense form of “do” namely, “did”. (Well, sometimes; when we use the question words “who” or “what” we sometimes use the past form of the verb. But I’ll get to that in a second.)
Here is the recipe for when we do use “did”:
QUESTION WORD + DID + SUBJECT + INFINITIVE FORM OF THE MAIN VERB + REST OF THE QUESTION?
Look at these examples:
When did you go to the market?
Where did Sue put the book?
How did you find the right place?
Questions Using “Who” or “What”
The difference between “what” and “who” is that we use “who” for people and “what” for things, but they work in the same way. If we ask about the object of the answer, we use “did”.
Let’s use the following sentence as the answer:
Ben helped Ann.
In this sentence, “Ben” is the subject and “Ann” is the object. So if we ask about Ann like in the following question, we use “did”:
Who did Ben help?
The answer is Ann meaning, we asked about her, the object.
But if we asked about “Ben” we would not use “did”. Take a look at the following example:
Who helped Ann?
The answer is “Ben” meaning, we asked about him, the subject.
Concluding Thoughts: English Simple Past Tense
This tense is one of the easier ones in English if you ask me and I hope that I could help you see that. Let me know what you think.
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