Past Simple Tense

The past simple tense can cause English learners some problems, especially with all the irregular tenses.

The way it is used is quite straightforward, but it is sometimes used wrongly instead of the present perfect simple. It is used when we are talking about completed events in the past.

“Yesterday I go (instead of went) to the supermarket” is an example of a very common mistake in spoken English.

This post will explain the rules and usage of the past simple tense, along with some phrases and exercises that will help you remember the correct form.

We have also linked to some other posts and pages that will help you with your understanding of this tense.

Past Simple Form

See the following on how to form the simple past. A list of irregular verbs is shown at the bottom of the page.

Affirmative

Verbs Ending In: How to Make the Simple Past Examples
e add ‘d’ Wave –> Waved
Live –> Lived
one vowel + 1 consonant
not y or w
double the consonant
+ ‘ed’
Tap –> Tapped
’y’ after a consonant change ‘y’ to ‘ied’ Cry –> Cried
anything else add ‘ed Call –> Called
Play –> Played
Pour –> Poured

Forming the Negative

The auxiliary did is used to form the negative – did + not + the infinitive. (I did not play)

  • I did not play
  • You did not work yesterday
  • We did not want to go
  • They did not sleep last night

“Did + not” gets contracted in normal speech

  • I didn’t play
  • You didn’t work yesterday
  • We didn’t want to go
  • They didn’t sleep last night

Asking Questions

The auxiliary “did” is used for all verbs except “to be.”

  • Did I play?
  • Did you work last night?
  • Did you want to go?
  • Did you sleep sleep last night?
  • Were you tired last night?
  • Was he there?

Completed actions

The past simple is used when we talk about actions that were completed in the past. We use it with the following expressions: last week, last month, last year, yesterday, five hours ago, two weeks ago etc.

  • I went to the cinema last night.
  • I had my breakfast a couple of hours ago.
  • I last saw Jolene three weeks ago.
  • We washed the car last weekend.


The completed action can come in a series of events:

  • Yesterday I did my homework, went to the beach, and then saw that new film.

Durac

It can also be used to talk about a duration in the past:

  • I lived in Spain for two years.
  • I was in that meeting for 4 hours.
  • He studied for ten hours on Sunday.


This can be compared to durations that are still true now (use the present perfect or continuous instead):

  • I’ve lived in Spain for two years.
  • I’ve been in this meeting for 4 hours.
  • He’s been studying for ten hours now.

Durac

It is used in a similar way to “used to.” (click here for an explanation on this)

  • I played a lot of soccer when I was at school = I used to play soccer..
  • I went the mountains every summer when I was young = I used to go to the mountains..
  • He was rich was he was young = He used to be rich..
  • When I was at school I was very shy = I used to shy..

Exercise

A fantastic and simple exercise to to write about what you did last night, last weekend, last month, last year. Try and include as many different verbs as possible.

If you struggle with the past simple when talking, remember to take your time! There is now rush. Getting it correct slowly the first few times is important. It comes easier the more you say it.

Past Simple Exercise

Past Simple vs Present Perfect

More Practice

The past simple is easy to practice as we are constantly talking about the past. Whenever I start a class with one of my students I always ask what they did last weekend or the day before.

Instead of learning all the irregular verbs off by heart it is better to expose yourself more to the past simple and learn the different sentences and structures in context. Because a lot of the irregular verbs are very common, you will soon learn these just through practice. We don’t recommend that you try to memorize the different conjugations (unless you need to for an exam).

Let’s take a look at some ways that you can improve your past tense:

1. Past Simple Pronunciation: One of the hardest parts of the this tense is the pronunciation of the regular verbs. Being able to pronounce the three different sounds will greatly help your English.

2. My Trip to the UK: Read stories in that describe situations in the past. This story looks is a great way to practice and especially looks at the difference between the past simple and the past continuous.

3. Listen and read more English that use the past tense (most things that you watch or read will have lots of sentences that use the tense).

Irregular verbs

As you probably already know, there are also many irregular verbs in English for the past tense. Here are some of the most common ones.

Infinitive In the Simple Past
to be was/were
to do did
to go went
to come came
to eat ate
to find found
to get got
to give gave
to run ran
to sleep slept
to teach taught
to think thought
to wake woke
to write wrote