Past simple

Learn how to use the past simple to talk about the past, and do the exercises to practise using it.

Level: beginner

With most verbs, the past tense is formed by adding –ed:

called liked wanted worked

But there are a lot of irregular past tense forms in English. Here are the most common irregular verbs in English, with their past tense forms:

Base form Past tense
be
begin
break
bring
buy
build
choose
come
cost
cut
do
draw
drive
eat
feel
find
get
give
go
have
hear
hold
keep
know
leave
lead
let
lie
lose
make
mean
meet
pay
put
run
say
sell
send
set
sit
speak
spend
stand
take
teach
tell
think
understand
wear
win
write
was/were
began
broke
brought
bought
built
chose
came
cost
cut
did
drew
drove
ate
felt
found
got
gave
went
had
heard
held
kept
knew
left
led
let
lay
lost
made
meant
met
paid
put
ran
said
sold
sent
set
sat
spoke
spent
stood
took
taught
told
thought
understood
wore
won
wrote

We use the past tense to talk about:

  • something that happened once in the past:

I met my wife in 1983.
We went to Spain for our holidays.
They got home very late last night.

  • something that happened several times in the past:

When I was a boy, I walked a mile to school every day.
We swam a lot while we were on holiday.
They always enjoyed visiting their friends.

  • something that was true for some time in the past:

I lived abroad for ten years.
He enjoyed being a student.
She played a lot of tennis when she was younger.

  • we often use expressions with ago with the past simple:

I met my wife a long time ago.

Past simple 1
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Past simple 2
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Past simple questions and negatives

We use did to make questions with the past simple:

Did she play tennis when she was younger?
Did you live abroad?
When did you meet your wife?
Where did you go for your holidays?

But questions with who often don't use did:

Who discovered penicillin?
Who wrote Don Quixote?

Past simple questions 1
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Past simple questions 2
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We use didn't (did not) to make negatives with the past simple:

They didn't go to Spain this year.
We didn't get home until very late last night.
I didn't see you yesterday.
 

Past simple negatives 1
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Past simple negatives 2
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Level: intermediate

Past simple and hypotheses

We can also use the past simple to refer to the present or future in hypotheses (when we imagine something). See these pages:

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Hello Fey,

We form negatives in simple past with the verb do, in the form of did (not). The exception to this is the verb be, which forms questions by inversion in all tenses and not just simple past. You can read more about the verb be here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/verb-be

 

Can is a modal verb. These have their own grammar structures. Note that modal verbs do not occur in the infinitive; there is no form with to. You can read more about modal verbs in this section:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/modal-verbs

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Shanthini on Wed, 15/04/2020 - 05:25

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"Documentation was sent to guide ". Is this sentence is correct?

Hello Shanthini,

No, I'm afraid that sentence is not grammatically correct. I'm not sure what you want to say and what the context is, so I don't want to guess what the correct way to phrase it would be.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Praveen on Sat, 04/04/2020 - 18:57

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Dear Peter, Is it correct to use the phrase " Rabbit is caught " ? Thank you

Hello Praveen,

The verb phrase is caught is grammatical, but I think you would probably need an article (a, the) before rabbit. However, without knowing the context it is impossible to be sure.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for the clarification. Can we use the phrase. " The rabbit is caught" If the job completed just now

Hello again Praveen,

If the action was performed just a moment ago, so you have the result in your hands or on your table, then the present perfect is the most likely form:

The rabbit has been caught.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Jordi chandi on Tue, 10/03/2020 - 02:59

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very good page to learn easily and very practical

Submitted by Ne9en7even on Tue, 14/01/2020 - 09:47

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Is the sentence "he's a good person" right?

Submitted by Ahmed Dawoud on Mon, 13/01/2020 - 20:56

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Plz. Need your help. Which is correct and why ? It has been raining for 3 days. The farmers were happy to water their fields. OR: It rained for 3 days . The farmers were happy to water their fields.

Hello Ahmed Dawoud,

The correct answer is the second one (rained) as the time period is a finished one, not one continuing into the present.

Please note that we generally from elsewhere such as this which may be from tests or homework. We are happy to explain our own material, of course.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Anubhav on Tue, 31/12/2019 - 13:19

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Could anyone tell whether these sentences are gramatically correct or not- 1. "She went to the college the other day when she found out that her father's name had been misspelled on her degree" 2. "After she had collected her degree, she found out that her father's name had been misspelled on her degree" Also should i be using has been in the above sentences?

Hello Anubhav,

Both sentences are grammatically correct. In 2, you could change 'had collected' to 'collected' and it would also be correct. In 1, it's a little strange to say 'the other day', which we usually use to talk about a non-specific day in the past, in combination with 'when she found out ...', which speaks about a specific time, but the sentence is not incorrect.

Both sentences refer to a finished past time that has no connection with the present, so the present perfect ('has been') would not be appropriate.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Naomi03 on Sat, 07/12/2019 - 16:22

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Is this past simple or present simple ‘the cars are exported’. I’m confused because ‘are’ is a form of be and used in the present but ‘ed’ on exported is a past tense marker. Help

Hello Naomi03

In this sentence, 'are exported' is a passive verb in the present simple tense. You're right that the ending '-ed' is a past tense marker, but it also has other meanings and uses -- in this case, for example, it a past participle.

You can find an explanation of all of this on our Active and passive page. If you have any other questions after reading that, please let us know.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sad on Tue, 15/10/2019 - 22:38

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Can we say 'We learn at school' or 'We learn in school'? Please explain the difference. Thanks

Hello Sad,

In the UK, at school can mean either of these:

1. being a pupil (She is still at school can mean she is still a pupil)

2. being physically in the place (She is still at school can mean she has not come home yet)

In school generally only has the second meaning.

 

When you want to ask about, for example, what was done during the day, then either can be used:

What did you learn in school today?

What did you learn at school today?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Does it make sense? 'We write at school'? Gives a meaning that we write the word 'at school'! 'At school, we learn to write words' Isn't it a correct structure? Regards

Hello Sad,

There is nothing grammatically wrong with either sentence. I think the most likely way to phrase it would be 'We learn to write at school', but it really depends on the context and to what question the person is responding, if any.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you. It doesn't make sense to me if it's written ' We write at school.', I don't know why? However, the other 2 make sense, but which is stronger, 'At school, we learn to write.' Or 'We learn to write at school.' I mean, as a strong correct sentence structure! Regards

Hello Sad,

Both of these are fine:

At school, we learn to write.

We learn to write at school.

There is no difference in meaning or strength.

 

The sentence 'We write at school' is, as I said, grammatically correct. I think it's very unlikely anyone would say it in conversation but it's possible to think of a context in which it would make sense:

The teacher doesn't give us writing homework. Usually, we have lists of words to learn at home. We write at school.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by fdrewaserera on Mon, 09/09/2019 - 03:50

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why i cannot mention a specific time with present perfect tense or why the time is not important

Hello fdrewaserera,

I'm not sure there is a 'why' to explain this. It's simply a feature of how the verb system words in English. The present perfect has a retrospective meaning: it looks back on the past from now and thus requires an open time reference. It is never used with a completed time reference.

I can say

I've been to Spain. [some time in my life]

I've finished the book. [some time before now]

However, if I add a completed time reference then I need to use a past form:

I went to Spain in 1995.

I finished the book last week.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks why we use just with present perfect tesns because the action is effect to the present or what
Profile picture for user Kirk

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 10/09/2019 - 02:45

In reply to by fdrewaserera

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Hello fdrewaserera

Could you please give a specific example of what you're asking about?

Thanks.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by yasiraq on Fri, 06/09/2019 - 23:25

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hi I want to ask about this sentence : I lived abroad for ten years. Isn't it supposed to say I had lived abroad for ten years or I had been living abroad for ten years thank you
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 07/09/2019 - 08:03

In reply to by yasiraq

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Hello yasiraq,

All of those are correct grammatically. Which one is appropriate in a given context will depend on the context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Scarlettleg on Thu, 29/08/2019 - 12:28

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Hello, I was reading a book until I saw the sentence “I have to have fallen into the arms of the murderous Ghazis”. I don’t understand the grammatical structure of this sentence. Thank you for your time!

Hello Scarlettleg,

Could you check to see if you have quoted the sentence accurately, please? I think I recognise this from a Sherlock Holmes story, but I think you may have misquoted it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Widescreen on Wed, 28/08/2019 - 09:26

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Hi Kirk, could you please clarify which tense is correct for this sentence? “ no one knows exactly how the planets come/ came/ had come/ have come into being”. Thank you

Hello Widescreen,

The correct form is 'came', because 'came into being' is a completed act (words such as 'survive', 'live' or 'endure' would describe ongoing actions).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by AfnanAlAhmad on Sat, 10/08/2019 - 19:16

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Thank you for your explanation, I have a question: Is the past simple should be in a specific time ? like " last week, yesterday ..etc " thank you

Hello AfnanAlAhmad

Yes, with time expressions that refer to a completed past time (for example, 'last week', 'yesterday', 'five minutes ago', '10,000 years ago', 'last year') we use the past simple.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sad1974 on Tue, 18/06/2019 - 08:20

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Hi. One question please. Can I say 'Does your child speak English in home'? If yes, why 'at' is not used here? Thanks.

Hello Sad1974

'at home' is the correct way to say this, not 'in home'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by luna fernanda on Sun, 02/06/2019 - 21:05

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I am satisfied with the page

Submitted by patph0510 on Fri, 23/11/2018 - 13:04

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Dear Sir, I would like to ask a question about the usage of simple past tense. When we talk about a past event/what a person did in the past, and the relevant background information is still true now, should we use simple present or simple past? Eg 1: the terrorist attack last Sunday was/is disgraceful. Eg 2: The defendant was/is a taxi driver. He was convicted of careless driving 6 months ago.
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 24/11/2018 - 08:23

In reply to by patph0510

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Hello patph0510,

I think the past simple is the most likely choice here, and we would only use the present tense if we wanted to emphasise that we consider it to be still a current event in some way.

For example:

The existence of slavery in the US was a national disgrace. [past as slavery existed in the past]

The existence of slavery in the US is a national disgrace. [present because the speaker wants to emphasise that the disgrace remains even though slavery ended]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your reply! Am I correct to say that even if the defendant is still a taxi driver, we would use past tense to emphasize the fact that he was a taxi driver when the accident took place? Thanks

Hello patph0510,

If the person is still a taxi driver then both past and present could be used. I think a newspaper describing an ongoing or very recent trial would probably use the present; someone describing a trial long ago would use the past.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bakh.sh85 on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 18:46

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Hello Sir Which answer for the following question is correct? When I met him, he (type) the report. _ When I met him, he was typing the report. _ When I met him, he had typed the report. Can both "tenses" be used with the word "when"? Regards
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 20/10/2018 - 07:40

In reply to by bakh.sh85

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Hello bakh.sh85,

Both of those sentences are possible, as are many others (he typed, he was going to type, he had been typing etc). Without any context, it is not possible to say which form is preferable.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by p t balagopal on Thu, 18/10/2018 - 15:06

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Sir, I came across the following sentence in a grammar book . "John has become engaged ; it took us completely by surprise." I would like to know whether we can use 'have taken' instead of 'took' in the second clause. Is there any rule regarding this ?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 08:28

In reply to by p t balagopal

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Hello p t balagopal,

It would be possible to use 'has taken' here but it would depend upon the context.

The phrase 'become engaged' does not sound particularly natural to me, however. We would be more likely to say 'get engaged'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by seelan65 on Thu, 18/10/2018 - 10:36

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Dear Sir Please clarify whether the example in the past simple usage - We went to Spain for our holidays is correct or should be 'We went to Spain for our holiday' Thanks
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 08:13

In reply to by seelan65

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Hello seelan65,

Both forms are possible here, but there is a difference in meaning.

The phrase 'for our holidays' can mean the time we have free (some weeks in the summer, for example) or it can mean a particular vacation or trip.

The phrase 'for our holiday' means a particular trip.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by seelan65 on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 10:37

In reply to by seelan65

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Thanks Peter M for your explanation

Submitted by Vivian888999 on Wed, 12/09/2018 - 14:46

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We use “Did...+infinitive” to form question in the past. In what situations I use “were” to form question? For example: what was the wealther like yesterday? Why cannot said like What did the wealther like yesterday? Or Were you alone? And Did you alone? What is different between those sentences.