Simple Past Tense in English Grammar

What is the Simple Past Tense in English Grammar

The simple past tense, also known as the past simple, the past tense or the preterite, expresses completed actions in the recent and distant past. It is the basic past tense in English grammar. We form this tense with the past simple form of the main verb and did, the past simple form of the auxiliary verb do. The duration of an action is not important in the simple past, instead, we emphasise when an action took place.

Learn about the simple past tense in English Grammar with Lingolia then test yourself in the exercises.

Example

Last month a girl from China joined our class. She came in, introduced herself, and began to talk about her country. She showed us where she was from on a map. While she was talking about her home town, the school bell suddenly rang.

If I spoke Chinese, I would love to go on a holiday to China.

How to use the Simple Past Tense in English Grammar

The simple past is the basic form of the past tense in English grammar, we use it for:

  • actions that happened once or repeatedly in the past
    Example:
    Last month a girl from China joined our class.
    She was from China.
    She showed us where she was from on a map.
  • actions that happened one after the other in the past
    Example:
    She came in, introduced herself, and began to talk about her country.
  • a new action interrupting an action that was already taking place, together with the past progressive tense
    Example:
    While she was talking about her home town, the school bell suddenly rang.
  • in the second conditional
    Example:
    If I spoke Chinese, I would like to go on holiday to China.

There are four past tenses in English grammar. Besides the past simple, there is the past progressive, the past perfect simple and the past perfect progressive.

Learn about the differences between English past tenses on Lingolia’s English Tense Comparison page:

Learn more about the simple aspect and other simple tenses on Lingolia’s tenses timeline.

Signal Words: English Simple Past Tense

The simple past is used to say when something happened, so it is common to use it with expressions of time and adverbs of frequency.

  • Time expressions: yesterday, 2 minutes ago, in 1990, the other day, last Friday etc.
  • Adverbs of frequency: always, often, sometimes, rarely, never etc.
  • In the second (unreal) conditional.

How to conjugate the Simple Past

The verb be

The verb be is irregular in the simple past:

positive negative question
I/he/she/it I was I was not Was I?
you/we/they you were you were not Were you?

We use the contractions wasn’t and weren’t in negative sentences with be in the simple past.

Examples:
I wasn’t on time yesterday.
We weren’t interested in the event.

Other verbs

The conjugation of verbs in the simple past is the same for all forms. We add -ed to the regular verbs, but the irregular verbs have to be learned by heart. In negative sentences and questions, we use the auxiliary verb did or did not together with the main verb in the infinitive. The table below shows examples of the conjugation of regular and irregular verbs in the simple past in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.

positive negative question
regular verb I played I did not play
I didn’t play
Did I play?
irregular verb I spoke I did not speak
I didn’t speak
Did I speak?

We use the contraction didn’t in negative sentences in the simple past.

Info

We always use the infinitive of the verb after the auxiliaries didn’t and did.

Examples:
I didn’t know about the party. (not: I didn’t knew …)
Did you have a nice weekend? (not: Did you had …)
Did she say anything? (not: Did she said …)

Simple Past – Spelling Rules

Regular verbs are conjugated by adding -ed to the base infinitive of a verb. However, there are some exceptions to this rule:

  • When a verb ends in -e , we only add -d.
    Example:
    love – loved (not: loveed)
  • The final consonant is doubled after a short stressed vowel.
    Example:
    admit – admitted
  • The final consonant -l is always doubled after a vowel in British English but not in American English.
    Example:
    travel – travelled (British), traveled (American)
  • A -y at the end of the word is replaced by an -i.
    Example:
    hurry – hurried

Contractions

We can only use contractions in the negative form of the simple past. We do this by combining the form of be/did and not.

long form contraction
was not wasn’t
were not weren’t
did not didn’t