Simple Past Tense in English Grammar

Introduction

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 the auxiliary verb do. The duration of an action is not important in the simple past, instead, we exmphasise 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.

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Usage

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.

Conjugation of English Simple Past Tense

The conjugation of verbs in the simple past is the same for all forms. We add -ed to the regualr verbs, but the conjuagtions of irregular verbs has to be learned by heart. In negative sentences and questions, the verb remains in the infinitive, and the auxiliary verb do is conjugated in the past tense – did. The table below shows examples of the conjugation of regular and irregular verbs in the simple past in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.

positivenegativequestion
regular verb I played I did not play Did I play?
irregular verb I spoke I did not speak Did I speak?

Exceptions

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

  • When a verb ends with 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

be in the Simple Past

The verb be is irregular. We use was for the first and third person singular and were for the second person and all plural forms. We don’t need the verb do to conjugate negative and interrogative sentences with be. We use not for negative sentenses and in interrogative sentences, we simply invert the verb and subject. See table below:

positivenegativequestion
I/he/she/it I was I was not Was I?
you/we/they you were you were not Were you?

Signal Words

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.
  • 2nd/unreal conditional