How to Use the Past Simple Tense!

Once you’ve mastered the basic present tenses like present simple and present continuous, it’s time to look at the past simple. We use the past simple in English ALL THE TIME. When you get home from work, school or university at the end of a busy day, do you like to tell your friends or family how your day went? Well, if you want to do this in English – you need to know how to speak in the past simple tense.

First, let’s look at the form before we go into when we use it.

For regular verbs, we add ‘ed’ to the root form of the verb, or just ‘d’ if the verb already ends in a ‘e’. For example:

‘I watched a movie yesterday.’

‘She listened to the radio.’

‘They walked to the grocery store.’

‘I wandered around the market.’

‘I liked the chocolate ice-cream I had for dessert.’

This shows us that this is a FINISHED action. I watched a movie yesterday, and it’s now finished. She listened to the radio, but she isn’t listening now. I liked the chocolate ice cream I had for dessert, but I’m not eating that dessert anymore. All of these actions are done and completed.

With irregular verbs, you’re going to need to use your memory a bit. There is no definitive pattern for these, so you need to learn them – bit by bit.

‘I slept late last night.’ (past of sleep)

‘I went to the mall.’ (past of go)

‘I made a cake.’ (past of make)

One of the most common mistakes I encounter from my student is accidentally using a helping verb that isn’t required. For example, I hear:

‘I was go to the mall yesterday,’ or ‘I did go to the mall yesterday.’

 

You do not need to use a helping verb when you are forming the simple past tense – only one verb is required.

That’s important to remember!

Now, let’s take a look at the image below to see the various forms of the past simple in affirmative, negative and question. We have just looked at how to form the affirmative, how to make a sentence, but now we need to see how to make it negative, and how to make it into a question.

Just like the present simple, we insert a helping verb between the subject and the main verb.

I like to describe these as the D-WORDS. The D-WORDS are do, does, don’t, did, didn’t.

You should by now already know that we use do, does and don’t with the present simple, which means that we use did and didn’t with the past simple both in questions and to form the negative.

 

For forming the negative – the D-WORD goes in the middle between the subject and the main verb.

 

For forming the question – the D-WORD goes first and then we have the subject. So, the two words are switched around for the question.

 

This is where the confusion comes from when adding unnecessary helping verbs in the past. Students remember that there are D-WORDs involved, and they mistakenly put them into the affirmative sentences too. This is wrong. Remember – you DO NOT need these for affirmative sentences.

So, let’s look at little more at when to use the past simple:

We use the past simple to talk about something that happened at a definite time in the past and is finished.

‘I went to Spain on holiday last year.’

This happened at a specific time in the past and now my holiday to Spain is over.

‘I baked bread in the oven this morning.’

Even though this says ‘this morning’, which is part of today – it is still clearly in the past. Maybe it’s now 2pm in the afternoon. It doesn’t have to be on a different day – the past can even be five seconds ago! So, sometimes you will see sentences ending with ‘today’ but it might mean earlier in the day. It does not necessarily mean that it’s in the present.

Something that makes learning the past simple easier is to learn the keywords that are often used with the past. This especially helps if you’re trying to tackle past tense in an exam. Finding the keywords will help you find the right answer. Let’s have a look at this example:

If you start learning the keywords like yesterday, last night, ago, last week, earlier, and there are many more – you’ll find it much easier!

Eventually you will encounter other types of past tense in English, like past continuous and present perfect, but they are different from past simple. Just try to remember that past simple is something that happened at a specific, definitive time in the past and is now over.

Let’s try an exercise to see if we can master the past simple. With this particular tense, it’s necessary to practice it in speaking A LOT. My students can be in intermediate level classes, yet they still make mistakes with past simple.

Okay, try the exercise and see how you get on, and don’t forget to check your answers down below!

  1. Lucy __________ (like) her birthday presents.
  2. The film ______________ (finish) at 8:30.
  3. Dad _______________ (wash) his car last weekend.
  4. We _______________ (phone) our cousins last week.
  5. She _________________ (sleep) like a baby.
  6. _____________________ for dinner last night? (she/eat)
  7. Where ______________________ (you/go) yesterday?
  8. I _________________ (not/eat) much at lunch time.
  9. What places _________________ (they/visit) in Dubai?
  10. Amal _______________ (not/enjoy) the restaurant.

 

Answers down here!

  1. Lucy liked her birthday presents.
  2. The film finished at 8:30.
  3. Dad washed his car last weekend.
  4. We phoned our cousins last week.
  5. She slept like a baby.
  6. What did she for dinner last night? (she/eat)
  7. Where did you go (you/go) yesterday?
  8. I didn’t eat much at lunch time.
  9. What places did they visit in Dubai?
  10. Amal didn’t enjoy the restaurant.

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