Simple Past Tense


I sang

The simple past tense is sometimes called the preterite tense. We can use several tenses to talk about the past, but the simple past tense is the one we use most often.


How do we make the Simple Past Tense?

To make the simple past tense, we use:

  • past form only
  • auxiliary did + base form

Here you can see examples of the past form and base form for irregular verbs and regular verbs:

past participle
regular verbwork
The past form for all regular verbs ends in -ed.
irregular verbgo
The past form for irregular verbs is variable. You need to learn it by heart.
 You do not need the past participle form to make the simple past tense. It is shown here for completeness only. 

The structure for positive sentences in the simple past tense is:

subject+main verb

The structure for negative sentences in the simple past tense is:

subject+auxiliary verb+not+main verb
  did   base

The structure for question sentences in the simple past tense is:

auxiliary verb+subject+main verb
did   base

The auxiliary verb did is not conjugated. It is the same for all persons (I did, you did, he did etc). And the base form and past form do not change. Look at these examples with the main verbs go and work:

 subjectauxiliary verb main verb 
+I  wentto school.
You  workedvery hard.
-Shedidnotgowith me.
?Didyou goto London?
Didthey workat home?

Exception! The verb to be is different. We conjugate the verb to be (I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were); and we do not use an auxiliary for negative and question sentences. To make a question, we exchange the subject and verb. Look at these examples:

 subjectmain verb  
+I, he/she/itwas here.
You, we, theywere in London.
-I, he/she/itwasnotthere.
You, we, theywerenothappy.
?WasI, he/she/it right?
Wereyou, we, they late?



How do we use the Simple Past Tense?

We use the simple past tense to talk about an action or a situation - an event - in the past. The event can be short or long.

Here are some short events with the simple past tense:

The car exploded at 9.30am yesterday.
She went to the door.
We did not hear the telephone.
Did you see that car?

The action is in the past.  

Here are some long events with the simple past tense:

I lived in Bangkok for 10 years.
The Jurassic period lasted about 62 million years.
We did not sing at the concert.
Did you watch TV last night?

The action is in the past.  

Notice that it does not matter how long ago the event is: it can be a few minutes or seconds in the past, or millions of years in the past. Also it does not matter how long the event is. It can be a few milliseconds (car explosion) or millions of years (Jurassic period). We use the simple past tense when:

  • the event is in the past
  • the event is completely finished
  • we say (or understand) the time and/or place of the event
In general, if we say the time or place of the event, we must use the simple past tense; we cannot use the present perfect.

Here are some more examples:

  • I lived in that house when I was young.
  • He didn't like the movie.
  • What did you eat for dinner?
  • John drove to London on Monday.
  • Mary did not go to work yesterday.
  • Did you play tennis last week?
  • I was at work yesterday.
  • We were not late (for the train).
  • Were you angry?

Note that when we tell a story, we usually use the simple past tense. We may use the past continuous tense to "set the scene", but we almost always use the simple past tense for the action. Look at this example of the beginning of a story:

"The wind was howling around the hotel and the rain was pouring down. It was cold. The door opened and James Bond entered. He took off his coat, which was very wet, and ordered a drink at the bar. He sat down in the corner of the lounge and quietly drank his..."
This page shows the use of the simple past tense to talk about past events. But note that there are some other uses for the simple past tense, for example in conditional or if sentences.