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Past Simple

The Past Simple tense is sometimes called the "preterite tense". We can use several tenses and forms to talk about the past, but the Past Simple tense is the one we use most often.

In this lesson we look at the structure and use of the Past Simple tense, followed by a quiz to check your understanding.

How do we make the Past Simple tense?

There are two basic structures for the Past Simple tense:

1. Positive sentences

subject + main verb
Past Simple

2. Negative and question sentences

subject + auxiliary do + main verb
conjugated in Past Simple  
did base

Look at these examples with the main verbs go (irregular) and work (regular):

  subject auxiliary verb   main verb  
+ I     went to school.
You     worked very hard.
- She did not go with me.
We did not work yesterday.
? Did you   go to London?
Did they   work at home?

From the above table, notice the following points...

For positive sentences:

For negative and question sentences:

Emphatic did
Normally, for positive sentences we do not use the auxiliary did. But if we want to emphasize (stress) something, or contradict something, we may use it. For example: "I didn't use a spellchecker but I did use a dictionary." Here are some more examples:
  • "Why didn't you go to the party?" / "I did go."
  • It did seem a bit strange.
  • After drinking it I did in fact feel better.

Past Simple with main verb be

The structure of the Past Simple with the main verb be is:

subject + main verb be
conjugated in Past Simple
was, were

Look at these examples with the main verb be:

  subject main verb be    
+ I, he/she/it was   here.
You, we, they were   in London.
- I, he/she/it was not there.
You, we, they were not happy.
? Was I, he/she/it   right?
Were you, we, they   late?

From the above table, notice the following points...

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:

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:

In general, if we say the past time or place of the event, we must use the Past Simple tense; we cannot use the present perfect.

Here are some more examples:

Note that when we tell a story, we usually use the Past Simple. We may start with 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, for example in conditional or if sentences.