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Also Known As: Past Simple, Past Indefinite, or (rarely) the Preterite

Let’s start with the most important issue: NO ONE we actually know uses the term “the preterite”. It is possible that if you are a linguistics professor in a language development program, you MIGHT use that term. Otherwise… it’s way too preterite to worry about (did we use that correctly in a sentence? Honestly… who cares? Just kidding. It’s correct.).

Otherwise, the simple past tense is pretty straightforward and exactly what you think it might be.

It’s most commonly used to show that an event or action took place at some point in the past. It is also often used to talk about habits or make generalizations about things that happened in the past. Continue reading for detailed descriptions of uses, how to form the simple past tense, and examples.

To Form the Simple Past Verb Tense

Like we said, simple past tense is very… simple! To form the simple past tense, you generally just add the suffix -ed to the base word.

Of course, as with nearly everything in English, there are some exceptions to this rule, and as one might assume, the trouble is nearly always with irregular verbs.  See below for more of an explanation of what to do in the event of an irregular verb.

To create a question in the simple past tense, add the word “did”, and place it at the beginning of the sentence, separated from the verb itself by the noun or pronoun (see examples in the chart below).

To create a negative, add the words “did not” between the naming word or phrase and the verb itself.

Important tip: Notice that in the question and negative forms of the simple past tense, the verb DOES NOT require an “ed” to be added but is instead in its regular infinitive (or base)  form. 

Statement  Question Negative 
I cooked dinner last week.  Did I cook dinner last week?  I did not cook dinner last week.
You cooked dinner last week. Did you cook dinner last week? You did not cook dinner last week.
He cooked dinner last week.  Did he cook dinner last week? He did not cook dinner last week. 
She cooked dinner last week. Did she cook dinner last week? She did not cook dinner last week. 
The maid cooked dinner last week.  Did the maid cook dinner last week? The maid did not cook dinner last week.
We cooked dinner last week.  Did we cook dinner last week? We did not cook dinner last week. 
They cooked dinner last week.  Did they cook dinner last week? They did not cook dinner last week. 

On Irregular Verbs

There is no set rule for conjugating these irregular verbs, and only time and practice will help one know when to use which form of conjugation. Here are some examples of irregular verbs and their correct conjugations: 

Verb Verb in the Past Simple Tense 
be was, were
say said
send sent
pay paid
begin began
forget forgot
sell sold
shut shut
understand understood
write wrote

 

When to Use the Simple Past Verb Tense

The past verb tense is pretty common and gets a lot of use in everyday life. We use it to discuss actions fully completed in the past, a series of completed actions, the duration of things completed in the past, and even in talking about former habits.

We even use the past tense when we make generalizations and state facts. Here’s some clarification on how and when each of these uses take place.

Past Actions

In Disney’s The Lion King, Simba receives some “timely” advice from Timon after Pumbaa incorrectly tells him, “You gotta put your behind in your past!”. Timon quickly corrects him by saying the expression is actually “You gotta put your past behind you.”

And that sums up what we use the simple past tense for most often: actions or tasks that were completed at a time in the past… which is behind us.

The idea is that the action was started and completed at a specific past time. Sometimes the speaker will mention the specific time, but it is not always important to clarify any timeline. Any time before “right now” will do.

Examples 

We watched a movie last night. 

Did you travel to New Zealand last year? 

She cooked dinner for us the other day. 

I did not eat any candy last week. 

They bought groceries yesterday. 

Series of Past Actions

Often, simple past tense is used to make a list of a series or group of actions that have happened in the past. They are usually listed one after the other, in the same sentence, and separated by commas. 

Examples

Yesterday I ran one mile, ate a sandwich, and watched television for an hour. 

Did she feed the dog, fold the laundry, and go outside like I asked? 

Last year he bought a new house, started a new job, and got married. 

Durations in the Past

The simple past verb tense can be used to discuss a duration as long as that duration started and ended in the past. This may be indicated with phrases like for three years, for ten minutes, for two days, all day, all year, etc. 

Examples

I lived in Guatemala for three years. 

They did not stay at home all day. 

We talked on the phone for an hour. 

Did she stay in Sante Fe all year? 

I waited for you all day. 

Past Habits

Often, the simple past tense is used to talk about habits that took place and stopped in the past. This is basically the equivalent of one saying they “used to” do something. Talking about habits in the simple past tense often includes expressions such as always, never, usually, often, etc.

Examples 

He played the violin when he was a kid. 

I often walked after dinner. 

She usually worked at the ice cream shop in the summers. 

We never went to Sunday services as kids. 

Did he play a musical instrument as a kid?

Generalizations and Facts (In the Past)

Similar to the use of the simple past tense to talk about habits, using the simple past tense to talk about generalizations and facts is a lot like saying “used to”. The simple past tense cannot be used to talk about any facts or generalizations, only ones that used to be true but no longer are. 

Examples 

Did you live in Idaho when you were a kid?

She hated chocolate when she was a kid, but she doesn’t anymore. 

People paid so little for gas in the past. 

Important Note on Adverb Placement

When adding an adverb to a sentence written in the simple past tense, it’s very important to know where to place it. The placement differs whether the sentence is being phrased as a statement or a question.

Adverbs include terms such as only, always, never, ever, just, etc. 

In statements, the adverb will be placed between the subject and the verb.

As with all questions, even those with adverbs will begin with “did”. The adverb then remains between the subject and the verb,  just as in the statement. Below are some examples. 

She just called me. 

Did she just call me?

Examples of the Simple Past Verb Tense in Song Lyrics

Adel’s song “Set Fire to the Rain” is filled with past tense verbs explaining how she handled the heartbreak of a failed relationship: But I set fire to the rain/Watched it pour as I touched your face/Let it burn while I cried/’Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name.

Coldplay’s “Paradise” is also a great example of past tense verbs: When she was just a girl\She expected the world/But it flew away from her reach/So she ran away in her sleep/And dreamed of/Para-para-paradise,/Every time she closed her eyes.

Another heartbreak song that uses past tense verbs is Pink’s “Who Knew”: You took my hand/You showed me how/You promised me you’d be around/Uh huh/That’s right/I took your words/And I believed/In everything/You said to me

 

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