Simple past tense is one of the most common tenses in the English language, but many English learners confuse it with Past Perfect tense since both are used to talk about completed actions that happened in the past.
In order to understand this tense and use it correctly, you must learn its usage and form which is not difficult if you just pay attention to the following explanation. To make things easier for you, we’re going to explain the different uses of simple past tense with examples, and then focus on how to make positive and negative sentences as well as questions with this tense.
What Is Simple Past Tense?
This tense is used to talk about actions that were completed in the past. The focus is not put on the process of performing the action, but on the completeness of the action. In other words, what matters here is the fact that the action was completed in the past, whether that was a long time ago or recently.
On the other hand, the past perfect tense is used for actions in the past that happened before other actions in the past. Therefore, we use this tense when we want to point out that something happened before something else.
When to Use Simple Past Tense
Here are the most common uses of this tense along with examples so you can understand it better.
- For actions that started and finished at some point in the past - you can use this tense with or without specifying a time as long as it’s already known that you’re talking about a finished period.
Ex. She bought a car last month.
- For multiple actions finished in the past
Ex. I got up, brushed my teeth, and had breakfast.
- For a long process which started and ended in the past – you specify the time period with phrases such as “all night”, “entire week”, or “the whole year”.
Ex. We lived in Spain for two years.
- For describing past habits – you use time expressions such as “often”, “rarely”, “always”, and “never” to emphasize that the action described was a habit.
Ex. He often played basketball when he was young.
How to Form Simple Past
Here’s how to form affirmative and negative sentences, as well as questions in the simple past tense:
To form an affirmative sentence in this tense you need at least a subject and a verb whose form is in the simple past. The most important thing to remember here is that the form of the verb in this tense is the same regardless of the subject, except for the verb “to be” (was for “I”, “she”, “he”, and “it”, and were for “you”, “we”, and “they”.
Subject + verb (in the simple past) + object
Ex. We watched a movie together last night.
Ex. I watched a movie last night.
Ex. You were beautiful yesterday.
To form a negative sentence in this tense, you use the past form of do/does which is did + not followed by the base form of the verb
Subject + did not (didn’t) + verb (base form) + object
Ex. He didn’t go to school last week.
Ex. I didn’t see you at the party last night.
To form questions in this tense, you start with “did” and then you follow with the subject and the verb in base form.
Did + subject + verb (base form) + object?
Ex. Did she go the cinema with Mark last night?
Ex. Did they win the match?
The Tricky Part with Verbs in Simple Past Tense
In simple past tense, you don’t use the base form of the verb in the sentence but the simple past form. The reason why you need the base form to form negative sentences and questions is because you’ve already used the past form of the verb “do” – “did”. So, there’s still one verb in the sentence/question in the simple past form.
But, that’s not all. English verbs can be regular and irregular. To make simple past from regular verbs you only need to add the suffix “-ed” at the base verb, or “d” if the verb ends with “e”.
Ex. Watch – watched
Place – placed
Fix – fixed
Dance – danced
This rule, however, doesn’t apply to irregular verbs. They have specific forms in the simple past tense which have to be learnt by heart.
Ex. Go –went
Come – came
Make – made
Eat – ate
Be – was/were
Leave – left
Irregular Verbs and Their Form in the Simple Past
Irregular verbs are all verbs that don’t form past tense when adding “ed” or “d” at the end of the base form. They are very common and usually don’t follow rules when changing tenses.
To help you learn them easier and faster, here are four categories that irregular verbs fall into:
- Verbs that have different form in present tense, simple past, and past perfect tense.
Ex. Is/are (present), was/were (simple past), been (after “have” in past perfect)
Do/does (present), did (simple past), done (after “have” in past perfect)
Go/goes (present), went (simple past), gone (after “have” in past perfect)
- Verbs that have the same form in simple past and past perfect but different in present tense
Ex. Keep (present), kept (simple past), kept (after “have” in past perfect)
Find (present), found (simple past), found (after “have” in past perfect)
Buy (present), bought (simple past), bought (after “have” in past perfect)
- Verbs that have the same form in the present and past perfect tense, but different in simple past (only 4 verbs)
Ex. Run (present), ran (simple past), run (after “have” in past perfect)
Come (present), came (simple past), come (after “have” in past perfect)
Become (present), became (simple past), become (after “have” in past perfect)
Overcome (present), overcame (simple past), overcome (after “have” in past perfect)
- Verbs that have the same form in the present, simple past, and past perfect tense
Cut (present), cut (simple past), cut (after “have” in past perfect)
Let (present), let (simple past), let (after “have” in past perfect)
Put (present), put (simple past), put (after “have” in past perfect)
Simple past is one of the most commonly used tenses in the English language when talking about something that happened and finished in the past. It’s often confused with Past Perfect tense which is used when talking about several actions in the past, emphasizing which of them happened before the other.