Past simple

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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Hi
In this following sentence "I took care that he should not hear me "
Does here "he should not hear me " refer to past ?Can we use "should" in past tense?What about if we use "would not" instead of "should not" here ?

Hi Faii,

Yes, it does. (If referring to the future, "shall" can replace "should".) In this sentence, "would" and "should" have the same meaning but "should" is a bit more formal in style.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi
To know about someone's food hobby we ask What's your favourite food?
if someone ask me " What was your favourite food?" , is it different from
"What is your favourite food?"

Hello Sandy,

It's the same question, but asks about the past instead of the present. Unless the other person says more -- for example, "when you were a child" or "when you studied at university", it's difficult to know which time in the past they mean.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

I have another question. This article states one of the uses of the simple past tense as being "something that was true for some time in the past". I have two queries concerning this.

Firstly, does "something" refer to an event (i.e. an action or state/situation)?

Secondly, may I know if this explanation of the simple past tense (i.e. "something that was true for some time in the past") means the same as "something that took place over a complete period of time in the past"?

Thirdly, some examples that I can think of that fit this explanation of "something that was true for some time in the past" include sentences as follows. May I know if my understanding is correct?

I lived in China for two years.
Tom studied German for five years.
They sat in class all day.
They stayed at the party the entire time.
We talked on the phone for fifty minutes.

Regards,
Tim

Hello Tim,

Yes, 'something' could refer to a state or an action/event.

The past simple is not limited in duration. It can describe something which happens in a microsecond or something which lasts for millions of years. However, the action is seen as a unitary block in the sense that it is not interrupted (the contrast here is with the past continuous).

All of your examples are fine.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, what about my second question: may I know if this explanation of the simple past tense (i.e. "something that was true for some time in the past") means the same as "something that took place over a complete period of time in the past"?

Hi,

This article, like many others you have on your website, are about the grammar tenses of british english, correct? While I know there are some differences between british and american english, such as in terms of speeling of certain words, I wish to know whether there are any differences between british and american english in terms of the uses of the various grammar tenses (e.g. simple past - as with this article, or any of the other english tenses, for example, past continuous, simple future, present perfect simple/continuous, past perfect etc).

Regards,
Tim

Hello Tim,

Yes, our focus is on British English, though really the grammatical differences between American and British English are very few and minor. I'd suggest you have a look at our page on this topic (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-i…), where you'll see, for example, one minor difference in the way the past simple and present perfect are used. There are undoubtedly others, but we believe these five are the most common ones.

While the way British speakers use English grammar may occasionally strike American ears as a little strange, it would be extremely unusual for Americans not to understand Brits because of their grammar, or vice versa. And when there is confusion, it's usually more a matter of pronunciation or vocabulary, though that's also fairly uncommon in my experience.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

thank you. So firstly, from the article, regarding the comparison between american and british english in terms of using the present perfect simple and simple past, while present perfect simple is intended to express actions completed in the past but which have an effect on the present - and that this use is recognized and accepted as grammatical by both american and british english, american english tends to use the simple past more often. May I know if I have summarized this correctly?

Secondly, am I right to say that besides the present perfect simple tense vis-a-vis the simple past tense discussion as covered above, there are no further differences between american englisgh and british englisgh as far as the other english grammar tenses are concerned?

Hello Tim,

Yes, it sounds to me as if you've understood that difference correctly.

I'd hesitate to categorically say there are no other differences, but I would say this is to a good degree the most common and important one with respect to tense usage. More specifically, I can't think of any others off the top of my head, but this is not a topic I've done extensive research or thinking on. This is why I hesitate to make any sort of categorical statement on the matter.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Is had lost past simple? if not, then what is it?
And can I use it when talking about something recently lost?
Thank you

Hello sarasameer,

The form 'had lost' is an example of the past perfect. We use this to describe an action in the past before another action or time in the past. In other words, it describes 'past before past'. The two past actions should also have some connection: the earlier one causes or influences the later one in some way.

You can read more about the past perfect and practise it on these pages:

> the perfect aspect:
https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar/perfect-aspect

> talking about the past
https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar/talking-about-t…

> the past perfect
https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-i…

> the past perfect
https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar/past-perfect

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I note that the Simple Past Tense can be used to talk about something that happened (once or several times) in the past. Does "something" refer to an action or event, and happened means the action/event started and ended in the past? Also, since Simple Past Tense can be used for something that happened several times in the past, does "several times in the past" mean this "something" (i.e. an action/event) started and ended several times (i.e. repeatedly) in the past?

Hi Rikimaru,

The past simple is used for completed/finished actions in the past. For example:

I read this book last week. [I finished it]

I read this book four times last year. It's my favourite! [I finished it four separate times]

I went to school in the 1990s. [I don't go to school now]

 

However, there are a couple of things to remember. The first is that the action may have consequences which are ongoing even if the action is complete:

He was born in 1933. [Being born is complete but he may still be alive]

 

The second thing to remember is that a state may not be finished but the speaker may only be interested in talking about a particular part of it which is in the past, or may choose to divide the time in to discrete chunks. For example:

I was a teacher in 1993 and in 1994 and in 1995 – in fact, I'm still a teacher now! [The speaker treats 1993/4/5 as separate and distinct periods of time in the past]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, So quoting your example, "I read this book four times last year. It's my favourite! [I finished it four separate times]", for instance, this means that the action of reading started and ended four times last year?
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Subido por Peter M. el Dom, 29/08/2021 - 09:15

En respuesta a por Timothy555

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Hello Tim,

Yes, that's correct. The speaker would have to really like the book!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Can I use "everyday" in past tense?? For example, can I say he went to school everyday or I met him everyday. Is that correct?or I have to change "everyday" into yesterday or any thing like that.

Hi marwah,

Yes :) You can use it with the past tense. But, it should be "every day" (two words). The single word "everyday" is an adjective (e.g., an everyday activity).

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

I read this book last week. [I finished it]

I started reading a book two weeks ago and I'm still reading it. I haven't finished it. Somebody asks me what did you do yesterday? Can I reply with "I read a book" I neither started nor finished it yesterday, but this is exactly what I did yesterday. I spent some time reading the book.

Another example "I read the paper on the bus" does it mean that I started and finished the paper on the bus?

Hello IlyaTretyakov,

In itself, the verb 'read' doesn't clearly indicate whether we finished the text that is read; it refers more to the activity itself.

That said, often we leave out the object when we want to focus on the activity itself. Taking your second example, if somebody asked me what I did yesterday (and I read a book, but neither started or finished it), I'd say 'I read' or perhaps 'I read for half an hour after lunch'. That doesn't explicitly indicate that I did not finish the book, but usually if I started and finished a book all in a given time period, I'd say 'I read a book' (or 'I finished a book') instead of 'I read'. But if you really want to be clear, you generally have to use other words or expressions to specify these details, unless of course the context has made it clear.

As for your third example, it kind of depends on what the question was. I can't speak for everyone, but in general I think most people wouldn't say that 'reading the paper' means one reads the whole thing -- it's different from a novel, which people generally finish (though I suspect that trend is declining).

So if someone asked me when I read the paper and it was while I was on the bus that I had read part of the paper, I could use the sentence you ask about without indicating that I read it all. Though it could also indicate that I read it all if I actually did that. Again, you have to use additional words to make it completely clear. And, just like before, often the context will make it clear, as what has been said before usually makes it clear whether we're talking about reading part of or all of a text.

I wish there were a simpler answer, but I hope that helps you make sense of things, at least.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, I wish to know if it is true that the simple past tense can be used (in speech or writing) without any time references and time adverbs/time adverbials? For example, can I write/say "I washed the car" to mean that my washing of the car happened (i.e. started and ended in the past) without including any specific time references/adverbials like "last night" or "last week" etc? So in other words, whether it be "I washed the car" (i.e. use of simple past tense without any time reference) or "I washed the car last night/last week etc" (use of simple past tense with time references), both sentences are grammatical and make sense?

Hi Rikimaru,

Yes, that's right. The simple past shows that the action took place in the past, but stating when it took place (i.e., by adding a time reference) is optional.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

When you say "The simple past shows that the action took place in the past", do you mean the simple past shows that the action started and ended in the past (i.e. took place in the past = started and ended in the past)?

In addition, simple past tense can be used regardless whether (a) the action/event happened recently (i.e. it does not matter how long ago the event is: it can be a few minutes or seconds in the past, or millions of years in the past), or (b) the action/event happened a long time ago, correct?

This means that regardless if its scenario (a) - simple past for events that happened recently, or (b) simple past for events that took place a long time ago, for both such scenarios, stating when the actions/events took place (i.e., by adding a time reference) is optional?

Hi Rikimaru,

Yes, that's right. At this point I think it's worth pointing out that we should look at the context (including the rest of the conversation) in which the past simple verb is used, as that will probably indicate which timeframe is relevant. For example, if I am telling somebody about dinosaurs, it is clear that I am talking about millions of years ago, even if I don't mention any time reference. So, yes - the time reference is optional with the past simple.

Best wishes,
Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

I was reading this and would like to chip in with my own questions. What if there is no context/background, or if the context/background is vague or not obvious, can we still use the simple past tense without any time reference/adverbials just to indicate/express that an event (action or situation) started and ended in the past?

Hello Tim,

I'm finding it hard to think of a situation in which there is absolutely no suggested time period or assumption that one will be provided. Of course, we're talking about how people understand the context of a particular interaction and how it maps onto what is known and assumed about the world, but I would say that without some understood or assumed time reference we would either provide one in the sentence or use the present perfect.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

this article lists a few uses of the simple past tense, two of which are "something that happened several times in the past" with example - "When I was a boy, I walked a mile to school every day", and "something that was true for some time in the past" - with example being "She played a lot of tennis when she was younger". Is there any difference between these two uses? sounds the same to me. Thks.

Hi Timothy555,

It's a good question! They are similar, but there is a difference.

For the meaning of something that was true for some time in the past, we don't think of it as divisible into individual, repeated actions. The other examples show this more clearly: I lived abroad for ten years. / He enjoyed being a student. In these examples, we understand 'lived' and 'enjoyed' as long-lasting actions, rather than individual and repeated.


So, how about the tennis example? We can understand She played a lot of tennis as a general action over a longer period of time, just like 'lived' and 'enjoyed' in the other examples, without the more detailed sense of it consisting of repeated individual actions. A speaker might intend this meaning if there's no particular need in the conversation to emphasise the repeatedness of the action or its frequency.

 

But it's true that we can also understand the tennis example as the first meaning you mentioned, something that happened several times in the past - i.e. a repeated individual action: she played match after match, week after week (for example). We could add the frequency to support this intended meaning:

 

  • She played a lot of tennis every weekend when she was younger.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan, Thanks for your reply. Just to verify two things about your answer. Firstly, you mentioned "A speaker might intend this meaning", by "this meaning", you are referring to the idea of a general action occurring over a longer period of time? Secondly, you also mentioned "we understand 'lived' and 'enjoyed' as long-lasting actions". Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't verbs like "live" and "enjoy" state or stative verbs? If so, why call them "long lasting actions" when such verbs are not dynamic (i.e. action) verbs? Regards, Tim

Hello Tim,

Obviously I'm not Jonathan, but I'm confident that you've correctly understood what Jonathan meant.

We use the past simple with stative verbs and non-stative verbs to talk about past states or actions.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team 

Hi, ok, I think I get what you mean. "She played a lot of tennis when she was younger" obviously means that even though this lady's action of playing tennis when she was younger must have occurred repeatedly (something that happened several times in the past - i.e. a repeated individual action) when she was younger, since we know that she could not have possibly played tennis all the time when she was younger to the point of ignoring other things like eating/sleeping, we are now simply choosing to think of this lady's action as a long general action or state (that is, we are simply choosing to focus on this lady's action of playing tennis as a factual truth or state that lasted for sometime in the past). May I know if I've understood you correctly?

Hi,

Another query I have is when you say "She played a lot of tennis every weekend when she was younger" - this refers to a past repeated action (i.e. a habit) correct?

In addition, if I were to omit the "every weekend", can I take it that the sentence (i.e. just "She played a lot of tennis when she was younger") may be interpreted to mean either (a) a past repeated action (i.e. a habit), or (b) a general action over a longer period of time (i.e. a state/truth), and that because such a sentence can mean either (a) or (b), further explanation from the speaker/writer, or perhaps the context, will indicate whether the speaker/writer intended to express meaning (a) or meaning (b). Am I right?

Thanks

Hi Rikimaru,

Yes to all your questions :) But let me just add that further explanation about whether (a) or (b) is intended may not necessarily be given by the speaker. It depends on whether or not this subtle difference is important to the speakers and conversation, and what level of detail they require. In many cases, I would imagine that, since (a) and (b) mean something very similar, the general meaning (i.e., she played tennis a lot) is sufficient for the conversation.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi! Firstly, this article talks about the Simple Past Tense, correct? Secondly, the title of this article says "Past Simple", however, the article then goes on to say "We use the past tense to talk about..". Does this mean that the "Past Simple Tense" can also be referred to simply as the "Past Tense" (i.e. we can drop the term "simple") and it still means the same thing?
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Subido por Jonathan R el Dom, 18/10/2020 - 04:50

En respuesta a por Timothy555

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Hi Timothy555,

Yes, that's right! Past simple and Simple past are the same thing. Both names are commonly used in learning materials and by teachers.

Yes, it's also common to refer to the past simple as the past tense. (Technically speaking, English has only two tenses: present and past. Other perfect or continuous forms that we sometimes call 'tenses' are more properly called aspects.)

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

I really.......my cat.I was so sad when he died 1-love 2-loved Pablo Picasso........an Italian painter who died in 1929 1-is 2-was And can you explain why?

Hello Turki123456,

Both of your sentences are about the past. We know this because there are past tense verbs in each (died). Thus, the correct form is the past simple in each case: loved and was.

Of course, sometimes people still feel love after someone dies, but the convention is to place it in the past.

You can also sometimes hear people use a present form when defining something from history, using it with the sense 'Pablo Picasso is the name of a painter who died in...' In other words, the present is really referring to the name or title rather than the person.

By the way, Picasso was Spanish, not Italian.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Can anybody help me to write a story about Feeling under the weather – (I am sick ) must have to use past simple and past continuous tense. Thanks
It must have been COVID-19 depression... thought I. It took away my freedom putting me in an isolation, which had a depressing influence on me. But when I looked at two sides of a coin, it was not necessarily bad. Actually I was fed up with crazy mass tourism and excessive commercialism and wanted someone to stop it! Surprisingly enough, it happened. I think we are heading off in a new direction and in a transition period at the moment. How exciting it is!! That’s why I got out of feeling under the weather... ;)
Hi, If l list a series of actions in the simple past, for example: "On Sunday my brother and I went to a nice lake. There we met our friends. We swam in the warm water and played volleyball in the afternoon. Too bad that we had to go home in the evening. We didn't want to go to school on Monday." Does it mean, by default, that the actions described above using the simple past tense all happened one after another? Regards, Tim

Hello Timothy555,

Yes, in general, such a list of actions is understood as a narrative, i.e. a sequence of actions. 

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, "a sequence of actions" means the actions/events occured chronologically/sequentially (i.e. following the order in which they occurred)?