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The Past Simple Tense (Preterite)

Also known as preterite or simple past, this verb tense is used for actions that occurred in the past and which do not extend into the present. They were completed in the past.

Formulation of the Past Simple tense

The formulation of the Past Simple tense varies, according to the type of the verb, as below. You'll relieved to know that this is a tense that doesn't take auxiliary/helping verbs (do, be, have).

Regular Verbs

With regular verbs, the past simple is marked by -d, -ed or -t at the end of the base or the infinitive form of the verb. Check for the pronunciation of these terminations.

  • smile - smiled;
  • climb - climbed;
  • learn - learnt/learned, etc.

Irregular Verbs

On a list of irregular verbs the Past Simple form of the verb is found in the second column from the left. This position on the list is also called 'the second principal part of a verb'. Examples:

  • to eat, ate, eaten, eating
  • to sink, sank, sunk, sinking
  • to write, wrote, written, writing

Usage of the Past Simple tense

Decide when your Present Timeline begins and choose the Past Tense for all the actions you could find from the beginning of time until a split second before the present. (Adapted from Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Books, 2004)

Generally the simple past tense is used for events, habitual activities, and states in the past:

  • Event: I drove my brother to school this morning.
  • Habit: My mum cooked a cake every Sunday. (Often, when used in this way, the verb is accompanied by an adverbial that underscores the regularity of the situation described.)
  • State: He was extremely sad when he lost of his tarantula.

Other uses of the Past Simple tense

We have an interesting situation in reported speech, when a person reports, observes, tells/says claims, suggests (all of these being called 'reporting verbs') about an action in the past. In this case we need to change a present tense to a past tense if the reporting verb is in a past form. This is also known as backshifting, sequence-of-tense (SOT) rule, succession of tenses.

Consider the following examples:

Normal Speech

  • I am a goalkeeper. 
  • I go to school every day.

Reported Speech

  • He said he was a goalkeeper.
  • He said he went to school every day.

Further points to consider

Given that both the Present Perfect tense and the Past Simple tense are referring to a complete action, this also confuses many learners of English. The difference is that with the Present Perfect we do not specify the exact time of completion. However, if we add the time element, we must change the tense to Past Simple, to indicate completion in the past - yesterday, two weeks ago, last year, when I was young, etc. 

Present Perfect

  • I have finished 5 units until now.
  • She has done half of the exercises.

Past Simple

  • I finished 5 unitslast night.
  • She did half of them before lunch.

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