English Grammar Guide

Past Simple / Preterit

In English, the past simple tense is used to speak about finished actions which happened in finished time.

Formation of Past Simple forms

As a general rule, the past simple tense is formed by adding the ending  "--ed"  to the verb infinitive.
For example:

  • to walk -- walked

  • to answer -- answered

  • to want -- wanted

If a verb infinitive ends with a silent 'e' we only add the letter 'd' to make the past form.
For example:

  • to smile -- smiled

  • to die -- died

If a verb infinitive ends with a vowel and the letter 'y', we add '..ed'. However, if the infinitive ends with a consonant and the letter 'y' we remove the 'y' and replace it with 'ied'.
For example:

  • to play -- played

  • to stay -- stayed

  • to cry -- cried

  • to try -- tried

The past forms of many common verbs are irregular:

  • to be -- was (singular), were (plural)

  • to have -- had

  • to do -- did

  • to make -- made

  • to eat -- ate

  • to go -- went

  • to drink -- drank

  • to think -- thought

  • to bring -- brought

  • to drive -- drove

  • to write -- wrote

  • to sing -- sang

  • to build -- built

Past simple usage

The past simple is used to talk about actions or states which occurred in the past. These actions do not continue in the present. The past simple does not describe the process or duration of actions: it refers to them as completed actions in finished time. Finished time means past time: It is not important if the action happened yesterday or in January 1812.

  • She went to Paris in 2005.

  • I spoke to my father last night.

  • Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States of America.

Negative Forms

When we make negative statements, we can add 'did not' or 'didn't' in front of the verb infinitive. We can also use 'wasn't' or 'weren't' if the word after the subject is an adjective.

For example:

  • I didn't eat breakfast this morning.

  • I didn't go to university after I finished school.

  • Paul and Susan didn't marry in 1999, they married in 1998.

  • She wasn't happy in Berlin because it was very cold.

  • We weren't hungry, so we didn't eat dinner.

Question Forms

When we make past simple questions, we can use 'did' plus the verb infinitive if the question is positive, and 'didn't' if the question is negative. For a question that can be answered 'yes' or 'no' we can use the following form:
'Did' + subject + verb infinitive.  For example:

  • Did you talk to Peter yesterday?

  • Did she receive my email?

  • Did she arrive on time?

  • Didn't he pass his exams?

We can also use 'was' or 'were' in some questions, if the subject is followed by an adjective. We can also use the negative forms 'wasn't' and 'weren't for negative questions'.  For example:

  • Was she tired?

  • Were you late?

  • Were they on time?

  • Weren't you tired after working all day?

For questions which ask for information, we use the same forms, but with a question word (or phrase). Common question words are 'what, why, where, when' etc. Typical question phrases are 'what car, which house' etc. For example:

  • Who did you meet at the party?

  • When did you buy your car?

  • Where did you park the car?

  • What car did he buy?

  • Which house did you live in?

Common time expressions used with the Past Simple

The time expressions below are typically used with the past simple tense:

  • yesterday, yesterday morning, yesterday evening....(etc)

  • last week, last month, last year, last night....

  • a month ago, two weeks ago....(etc)

  • in 2002, on my birthday. at christmas....(etc)

  • during the summer....

  • when I was at school.....when I lived in Spain....(etc)