Teaching and Learning Since 2002

The Simple Past Tense

If you haven't yet, please be sure to learn or review the Simple Present first. It will make this page much easier for you.

  ↓  Table of Contents - click on the link to go directly to its section

  1. What is the simple past for?
  2. Past verbs with -ed
  3. Irregular past verbs
  4. Simple past for [be]
  5. Negative (-) sentences with [do]
  6. Question (?) sentences with [do]  UPDATED! 
  7. Negative (-) and question (?) together

What is the simple past for?

We use the simple past tense for anything that existed or happened in the past only. By this the subject started, happened/existed, and ended in the past only. Before I give you examples, let me show you three ways to show the past in sentences:

(1) By adding an -ed ending to the verb. For example:

We learn English. → We learned English.

(2) By changing the spelling of the verb to its irregular past form. For example:

I eat pie. → I ate pie.

(3) By changing the [be] verb to its past form (which is either was or were, depending on the subject). For example:

He is sad. → He was sad.

We will look at the above three ways in the next chapters. For now, let's look at two pictures to help us better understand the simple past.

Painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Washington crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776. This event started, happened, and ended in the past. Nothing that happened in the painting is still happening now, or will happen in the future.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. He was the 16th president in the past and his presidency ended with his death in 1865. Lincoln is not the President anymore and he will not be the President again in the future.

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Past verbs with -ed

You know by now that most verbs are changed to past by adding -ed to the end. Here is another example sentence:

Bryan helps his parents. → Bryan helped his parents.

As you can see, even if the verb in a sentence has a -s in the end, it is taken out when the -ed is added to the verb. The simple past never uses -s.

It is not always so easy to just add -ed to the end of the verbs. For example, if a verb ends with -e, you add -d, not -ed.

Wrong: Harry likeed Sally.
Right: Harry liked Sally.

Here is a table with all the -ed rules. Remember, vowels (V) are usually a, e, i, o, and u. Consonants (C) are most other nonvowels.

Verb EndingDouble the Consonant?RuleExample
-e No add -d minceminced
-ieNoadd -dtietied
-CyNo-y → -iedmarrymarried
-VC (1-syllable verb)Yesclipclipped
-VC (2-syllable verb, 2nd stressedYesreferreferred
All others Noadd -edstowstowed

Note 1: If you don't know what a syllable is, it is how many parts a word has when it is spoken. Usually the longer a word is, the more syllables it has. 1-syllable words usually have 5 letters or fewer.
Note 2: The second Yes rule is hard for Deaf English learners because they can't hear or even lipread the stresses in a word. I don't hear or lipread - I know when or not to double the consonants because I read a lot and I know from seeing them many times in print which words usually have the consonants doubled. I had no idea of that rule until I started teaching high school English grammar!
If you want to be right 100% of the time you could check a dictionary for every two-syllable verb you need to change to the past - most dictionaries add boldface or a small symbol to show you which syllable is stressed. Don't worry about this 2-syllable rule too much - just read more and you will get better with knowing which verbs to double the consonants.

Section Review

Follow the correct -ed rule for the verbs below. Check the table above if you forget. For two-syllable words, the stress will be bold and underlined.

  1. vie  ANSWER 

  2. fail  ANSWER 

  3. party  ANSWER 

  4. cater  ANSWER 

  5. hope  ANSWER 

  6. rebel  ANSWER 

  7. faint  ANSWER 

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Irregular past verbs

Another way a non-[be] verb is shown to be in the past is by changing its spelling. Some verbs do not have -ed added to the end. For example:

Wrong: eated
Right: ate

English grammar should be as easy as adding -ed to the end of verbs to show that it is in the past. Yet we have irregular past verbs.
Drawing of a sad face shouting WHY?!?!
Like it or not, English began as a spoken language. Most people did not read and write in English for its first 800 years - until the 1200's. Because of English's history as a spoken language, there are a few rules that are dependent on sound and the irregular past verb is one of them. Why? Most of the time -ed is voiced as "t" (not "ed" as in "need") so if it is voiced with some verbs then either the full past verb would be too hard to say or people would not be able to hear the -ed in the end and they would not know that the simple past tense is being used. From the above example, "eat" sound like "eet" so if I add -ed to its ending it would sound like "eet" (again) or "eet-t" (which doesn't sound good at all). That is why many verbs have irregular spelling instead. "eyt" (for ate) is easier to say and sounds more clear than "eet" or "eet-t."

So which verbs are irregular past? There are many sites on the internet where you can find lists and even practice games (Google the words irregular, past, practice, and game). A nice list can be found at Woodward English. For the simple past use the verb under "Past Simple". "Past Participle" is for the perfect tense (which will be in other chapters) and also passives. The best way to remember as many irregular pasts as you can is, you guessed it, to...
'Read, read, read.  Read everything.' - William Faulkner

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Simple past for [be]

The third way to change a verb to the simple past is by changing [be] to was or were. The rules and explanations are very much the same as in the simple present page. The only difference is was and were are used instead of am, are, and is.

SubjectSubject Examples[be] verbSentence Example
First-person singularIwasI was happy.
Second-person singularyouwereYou were smart.
Third-person singularhe, she, it, dog, BethwasPeyton Manning was the Colts quarterback.
First-person pluralwe, Beth and I wereSeth and I were basketball players.
Second-person pluralyou, Beth and youwereYou three were pretty cool.
Third-person pluralthey, dogs, Beth and Jill wereThey were hard workers.

In my opinion, the simple past of [be] is much easier to remember than the simple present. You only have two choices and if the noun is "I" or a singular noun that is not "you", then it is was.

Section Review

Put the correct simple past [be] verb in the sentences below.

  1. I _____ a student.  ANSWER 

  2. You _____ great girls.  ANSWER 

  3. You _____ not 8 feet tall.  ANSWER 

  4. My dog _____ very friendly.  ANSWER 

  5. The Syracuse Nationals _____ a basketball team.  ANSWER 

  6. My brother and I _____ high school students.  ANSWER 

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Negative (-) sentences with [do]

The word order for negative (-) sentences is the same as in the simple present. The only difference is that the verb loses the red past marker. The red past is put together with  [do]  to make did. As it is the simple past tense, the -s ending is not used at all.

Simple Present: My parents  do not  meet at work.
Simple Past: My parents did  not  meet at work.

You do not need to use met (the past form of meet) because you can use only one red past indicator and it is put always together with  [do]  to make did. Let's try another sentence - one that has the -s ending.

Simple Present: Pedro  does not  play baseball.
Simple Past: Pedro did  not  play baseball.

As you can see, the -s ending is not used at all for the simple past sentence. By the way, "did  not " can be written as "didn't " for casual or informal situations.

Negative (-) sentences using [be]

Did is never used in simple past sentences that has only a [be] verb. Just add  not  right after the past [be] verb.

Wrong: We did  not  were tired.
Also Wrong: We did were  not  tired.
Still Wrong: We  not  were tired.
Right: We were  not  tired.

[did] used without not

Note: Just as in the simple present, this section will not be covered in the Section Review below. It is just extra information for you to know.

You can use did with a non-past verb to show that a past event really happened. Here's an example between two friends who are meeting a third friend:

LOUISE Joanna still hasn't come yet. Mary, you didn't  text her, did you?
MARY: Louise, I did text her. Maybe Joanna's phone's battery ran out.

As explained in the simple present page, be careful not to use did with verbs too much. Only write like that to show that something really, really happened. If it were a normal situation, Mary would have told Louise, "I texted Joanna."

Another Note: did is never used with [be] verbs. So you would never write sentences like: My great-grandmother did was very old. Remember, simple past sentences don't use more than one past indicator.

 Challenge!  Which sentence is correct - a) or b)?

a) I did did my homework.
b) I did do my homework.  ANSWER 

Section Review

Change these simple past sentences to negative (-).

  1. J.K. Rowling wrote The Hunger Games.  ANSWER 

  2. It rained yesterday.  ANSWER 

  3. They were happy.  ANSWER 

  4. My father knew Mr. Dillon.  ANSWER 

  5. Mike was a scientist.  ANSWER 

  6. The Broncos won the Super Bowl.  ANSWER 

  7. My dog barked at the squirrel.  ANSWER 

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Question (?) sentences with [do]

Quick Note: As in my chapter on the simple present, this section is for Yes/No questions only.

The word order for question (?) sentences is the same as in the simple present. The same differences as in the above Negative (-) section apply - the verb loses the red past marker. It is instead used with  do , which changes to did. You do not need -s at all. Here are two examples:

Simple Present:  Do  Regina and Paul go home?
Simple Past: Did Regina and Paul go home?
Not: Did Regina and Paul went home?
And Not:  Do  Regina and Paul went home?

Simple Present:  Does  Janna play softball?
Simple Past: Did Janna play softball?
Not: Did Janna played softball?
And Not:  Does  Janna played softball?

Questions (?) with [be]

The rule for [be] used in simple past sentences is the same as in the simple present. Do not use did in sentences with [be], and move [be] to the very beginning of the sentence to make questions. Here is an example:

Statement: Your mother was cool.
Question: Was your mother cool?

Make sure be matches the subject and your sentences will be great!

Section Review

Change all the simple past sentences so they are questions (?). If you can't remember the rules, just read them again above! :-)

  1. She was great last night.  ANSWER 

  2. Jeff flew to Paris last spring.  ANSWER 

  3. Siama and Scott helped Clarice's parents.  ANSWER 

  4. Our cat slept all day.  ANSWER 

  5. You were busy yesterday.  ANSWER 

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Negative (-) and question (?) together

If you have read the similar section in the simple present page, you will know why sentences may have (-) and (?) together. I'll go ahead and show you some simple past examples.

(+) He played very well.
(-) He did  not  play very well.
(?) Did he play very well?
(-?) Didn't  he play very well?
(-?) Did he  not  play very well?

did and  not  in the same sentence can be written as didn't . As you know by now,  n't  is used for casual situations and the regular  not  is used for more important situations.

Negative (-) and questions (?) together with [be]

Using [be] with (-?) sentences follow the same structure as in the simple present. Let's look at an example:

(+) The Red Sox were champions in 2004.
(-) The Red Sox were  not  champions in 2004.
(?) Were the Red Sox champions in 2004?
(-?) Weren't  the Red Sox champions in 2004?
(-?) Were the Red Sox  not  champions in 2004?

Make sure was and were match the subject in your sentences. For casual (-) sentences you can write didn't  instead of did  not .

Section Review

Change these statements (+) to negative/question (-?) sentences.

  1. Travis was in class yesterday.  ANSWER 

  2. My mother played softball in college.  ANSWER 

  3. Melissa grew six inches last summer.  ANSWER 

  4. Johan helped us with the party.  ANSWER 

  5. Bears were everywhere at our camp.  ANSWER 

  6. Mr. Dawson gave $1,000 to charity.  ANSWER 

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©opyright 2017 by Richard Knopf
Updated March 13, 2014
-Why?!?! -Faulkner