English Classroom: Simple Past Tense

English Simple Past Tense

English Simple Past Tense


The simple past tense, sometimes called the preterite, is used to talk about a completed action in a time before now. The simple past is the basic form of past tense in English. The time of the action can be in the recent past or the distant past and action duration is not important.
  • John Cabot sailed to America in 1498.
  • My father died last year.
  • He lived in Fiji in 1976.
  • We crossed the Channel yesterday.
You always use the simple past when you say when something happened, so it is associated with certain past time expressions
  • frequency: often, sometimes, always I sometimes walked home at lunchtime. I often brought my lunch to school.
  • a definite point in time: last week, when I was a child, yesterday, six weeks ago We saw a good film last week. Yesterday, I arrived in Geneva. She finished her work atseven o’clock I went to the theatre last night
  • an indefinite point in time: the other day, ages ago, a long time ago People lived in caves a long time ago.
  • She played the piano when she was a child.
Note: the word ago is a useful way of expressing the distance into the past. It is placed after the period of time: a week ago, three years ago, a minute ago.
Be Careful: The simple past in English may look like a tense in your own language, but the meaning may be different.
The simple past expresses an action in the past taking place once, never, several times. It can also be used for actions taking place one after another or in the middle of another action.

Form of Simple Past

Positive Negative Question
no differences I spoke. I did not speak. Did I speak?
For irregular verbs, use the past form For regular verbs, just add ed.

Exceptions in Spelling when Adding ed

Exceptions in spelling when adding ed Example
after a final e only add d love – loved
final consonant after a short, stressed vowel or l as final consonant after a vowel is doubled admit – admitted travel – travelled
final y after a consonant becomes i hurry – hurried

Use of Simple Past

  • action in the past taking place once, never or several times

    Example: He visited his parents every weekend.

  • actions in the past taking place one after the other

    Example: He came in, took off his coat and sat down.

  • action in the past taking place in the middle of another action

    Example: When I was having breakfast, the phone suddenly rang.

  • if sentences type II (If I talked, …)

    Example: If I had a lot of money, I would share it with you.

Past Continuous

  The Past Continuous tense is an important tense in English. We use it to say what we were in the middle of doing at a particular moment in the past. In this lesson we look at the structure and the use of the Past Continuous tense, followed by a quiz to check your understanding.
Note that continuous tenses are also called progressive tenses. So the Past Continuous tense is sometimes called the Past Progressive tense.

How do we make the Past Continuous tense?

The structure of the past continuous tense is:
subject + auxiliary be + main verb
conjugated in Past Simple
was, were present participle
The auxiliary verb (be) is conjugated in the Past Simple: was, were The main verb is invariable in present participle form: -ing For negative sentences we insert not between the auxiliary verb and the main verb. For question sentences, we exchange the subject and the auxiliary verb. Look at these example sentences with the Past Continuous tense:
subject auxiliary verb main verb
+ I was watching TV.
+ You were working hard.
He, she, it was not helping Mary.
We were not joking.
? Were you being silly?
? Were they playing football?

How do we use the Past Continuous tense?

The Past Continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the past. The action started before that moment but has not finished at that moment. For example, yesterday I watched a film on TV. The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm.
At 8pm yesterday, I was watching TV.
past present future
At 8pm, I was in the middle of watching TV.
When we use the Past Continuous tense, our listener usually knows or understands what time we are talking about. Look at these examples:
  • I was working at 10pm last night.
  • They were not playing football at 9am this morning.
  • What were you doing at 10pm last night?
  • What were you doing when he arrived?
  • She was cooking when I telephoned her.
  • We were having dinner when it started to rain.
  • Ram went home early because it was snowing.
Note that some verbs cannot be used in continuous/progressive tenses.
We often use the Past Continuous tense to “set the scene” in stories. We use it to describe the background situation at the moment when the action begins. Often, the story starts with the Past Continuous tense and then moves into the Past Simple tense. Here is an example:
“James Bond was driving through town. It was raining. The wind was blowing hard. Nobody was walking in the streets. Suddenly, Bond saw the killer in a telephone box…”

Past Continuous + Past Simple

We often use the Past Continuous tense with the Past Simple tense. We use the Past Continuous to express a long action. And we use the Past Simple to express a short action that happens in the middle of the long action. We can join the two ideas with when or while. In the following example, we have two actions:
  1. long action (watching TV), expressed with Past Continuous
  2. short action (telephoned), expressed with Past Simple
past present future
long action: I was watching TV from 7pm to 9pm.
short action: You phoned at 8pm.
We can join these two actions with when:
  • I was watching TV when you telephoned.
Notice that “when you telephoned” is also a way of defining the time (8pm). We use:
  • when + short action (Past Simple)
  • while + long action (Past Continuous)
There are four basic combinations:
I was walking past the car when it exploded.
When the car exploded I was walking past it.
The car exploded while I was walking past it.
While I was walking past the car it exploded.
Notice that the long action and short action are relative.
  • “Watching TV” took two hours. “Telephoned” took a few seconds.
  • “Walking past the car” took a few seconds. “Exploded” took milliseconds.

Signal Words of Simple Past

  • yesterday, 2 minutes ago, in 1990, the other day, last Friday
The simple past tense is used to talk about finished actions that happened at a specific time in the past. You state when it happened using a time adverb. You form the simple past of a verb by adding -ed onto the end of a regular verb but, irregular verb forms have to be learnt. There are several examples of irregular verbs in our Picture It section.  

Simple Past Timeline

Simple past tense timeline

When you mention a time in the past:- For example: “Last year I took my exams.” “I got married in 1992.” It can be used to describe events that happened over a period of time in the past but not now. For example: “I lived in South Africa for two years.” The simple past tense is also used to talk about habitual or repeated actions that took place in the past. For example: “When I was a child we always went to the seaside on bank holidays.” It can sometimes be confusing. For example: “She had a baby last year.” (She hasn’t lost the baby, but here you are talking about the actual process of giving birth.)


Subject + verb + ed
I skipped.
Subject + did not + infinitive without to
They didn’t go.
Did + subject + infinitive without to
Did she arrive?
Interrogative negative
Did not + subject + infinitive without to
Didn’t you play?
Affirmative Negative Interrogative
I walked I didn’t walk Did I walk?
You walked You didn’t walk Did you walk?
He walked He didn’t walk Did he walk?
We walked We didn’t walk Did we walk?
They walked They didn’t walk Did they walk?
Subject Verb
Be Have Do
I was had did
You were had did
He/She/It was had did
We were had did
You were had did
They were had did


The affirmative of the simple past tense is simple.
  • I was in Japan last year
  • She had a headache yesterday.
  • We did our homework last night.
For the negative and interrogative simple past form of “do” as an ordinary verb, use the auxiliary “do”, e.g. We didn’t do our homework last night. The negative of “have” in the simple past is usually formed using the auxiliary “do”, but sometimes by simply adding not or the contraction “n’t”. The interrogative form of “have” in the simple past normally uses the auxiliary “do”.
  • They weren’t in Rio last summer.
  • We didn’t have any money.
  • We didn’t have time to visit the Eiffel Tower.
  • We didn’t do our exercises this morning.
  • Were they in Iceland last January?
  • Did you have a bicycle when you were young?
  • Did you do much climbing in Switzerland?
Note: For the negative and interrogative form of all verbs in the simple past, always use the auxiliary ‘did”.


Some verbs are irregular in the simple past. Here are the most common ones.
  • He went to a club last night.
  • Did he go to the cinema last night?
  • He didn’t go to bed early last night.
  • We gave her a doll for her birthday.
  • They didn’t give John their new address.
  • Did Barry give you my passport?
  • My parents came to visit me last July.
  • We didn’t come because it was raining.
  • Did he come to your party last week?
Affirmative Negative Interrogative
Long Form Contracted Form

I played I did not play I didn’t play Did I play?
You played You did not play You didn’t play Did you play?
He/she/it played He/she/it did not play He/she/it didn’t play Did he/she/it play?
We played We did not play We didn’t play Did we play?
You played You did not play You didn’t play Did you play?
They played They did not play They didn’t play Did they play?
The past simple tense is used to talk about finished actions in a finished period of time, for example :
  • Yesterday evening I played tennis with a friend.
  • Last year I started taking tennis lessons.
  • When I was at school I hated history.
  • Five minutes ago I finished the report for my boss.
  • Last week I attended a meeting in Tokyo.


[VERB+ed] or irregular verbs
  • You called Debbie.
  • Did you call Debbie?
  • You did not call Debbie.

USE 1 Completed Action in the Past

Use the Simple Past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Sometimes, the speaker may not actually mention the specific time, but they do have one specific time in mind.
  • I saw a movie yesterday.
  • I didn’t see a play yesterday.
  • Last year, I traveled to Japan.
  • Last year, I didn’t travel to Korea.
  • Did you have dinner last night?
  • She washed her car.
  • He didn’t wash his car.

USE 2 A Series of Completed Actions

We use the Simple Past to list a series of completed actions in the past. These actions happen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on.
  • I finished work, walked to the beach, and found a nice place to swim.
  • He arrived from the airport at 8:00, checked into the hotel at 9:00, and met the others at 10:00.
  • Did you add flour, pour in the milk, and then add the eggs?

USE 3 Duration in Past

The Simple Past can be used with a duration which starts and stops in the past. A duration is a longer action often indicated by expressions such as: for two years, for five minutes, all day, all year, etc.
  • I lived in Brazil for two years.
  • Shauna studied Japanese for five years.
  • They sat at the beach all day.
  • They did not stay at the party the entire time.
  • We talked on the phone for thirty minutes.
  • A: How long did you wait for them? B: We waited for one hour.

USE 4 Habits in the Past

The Simple Past can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as “used to.” To make it clear that we are talking about a habit, we often add expressions such as: always, often, usually, never, when I was a child, when I was younger, etc.
  • I studied French when I was a child.
  • He played the violin.
  • He didn’t play the piano.
  • Did you play a musical instrument when you were a kid?
  • She worked at the movie theater after school.
  • They never went to school, they always skipped class.

USE 5 Past Facts or Generalizations

The Simple Past can also be used to describe past facts or generalizations which are no longer true. As in USE 4 above, this use of the Simple Past is quite similar to the expression “used to.”
  • She was shy as a child, but now she is very outgoing.
  • He didn’t like tomatoes before.
  • Did you live in Texas when you were a kid?
  • People paid much more to make cell phone calls in the past.

Scroll to Top