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How do we use the Past Simple Tense?

We use the past simple 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 past simple tense:

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

The action is in the past.    

Here are some long events with the past simple 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?
past present future

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 past simple 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 past simple 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 past simple tense. We may use the past continuous tense to "set the scene", but we almost always use the past simple 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 past simple tense to talk about past events. But note that there are some other uses for the past simple tense, for example in conditional or if sentences.

Now check your understanding »

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