In English, as with many other languages, we use tenses to denote when descriptions of events or actions take place in speaking and writing. Past tense is one such example, and the past simple tense is one form that it can take. Our guide will give students some detailed instructions on how to identify, learn about, and form examples of this simple tense on their own. This guide will use a structure that should be easy for any middle or high school students to understand, and it is something that English language learners can apply to their own studies as well. Throughout the piece, we will use short yet direct, simple past tense examples to explain how this part of the English language works within the context of the mechanics of writing or speaking.
Although the others are not the focus of this guide, it is worth noting that past simple represents only one type of tense you can use to describe things that already took place. In English, you can have past simple tense, past perfect tense, past continuous tense, and the past perfect continuous. Past simple is something students might also see listed as preterit. As one might expect, the simple version of the past tense is usually the first one that most students will learn during their English studies.
Students may find it helpful to think of simple past tense examples as things that began and ended at a previous time. In other words, the entire event has concluded before the speaker or writer brings it up in the present.
If we write something like, I walked to the shop to get groceries yesterday evening; we see an example of the past simple. The subject of the sentence went to the shop the previous day and purchased the groceries at that time. Now, as they speak or write about it, we can tell that the whole event is over.
To take another example of the past simple tense, let us say that I changed buses on my way to school earlier this morning. The subject needed to take at least two buses to complete their route to school, but they did. This last point is important to recognizing and understanding the past simple. Namely, the subject must complete the action in its entirety for the tense structure to be in the past simple. If there is any interruption, or if the subject must continue the action later, we would have to use a different tense.
There are a couple of other primary ways in which you might use past simple tense in a sentence. The first relates to different moods that people might have had in the past. For example, we might say that Jackson was a happy kid growing up. We don’t necessarily know whether Jackson is now a happy adult, but we know what his general mood was like during some of his formative years. If we say that May was sullen at the zoo today, we also talk about a person’s mood. This mood may be more temporary than that of Jackson’s general demeanor. It is also one that may have changed once May left the zoo.
Another way to use the simple past as a tense is to talk or write about continuous actions that took place in the past from start to finish. For example, we might say that you cooked for your grandparents every Friday night for a decade. In this construction, we know that the subject cooked a meal at least once a week for their grandparents, and we know that they did so for many years. The action of cooking the meal was something that the subject managed to complete regularly and continuously.
To look at another example, one might say that their father worked on upgrading the log cabin every weekend for many years. This person’s father spent weekends performing various upgrades or maintenance work on a log cabin. Each day or weekend, the man may have completed some specific tasks. However, he found that he needed to continue the overall work on the building with each successive weekend. This is a pattern that he repeated for years. Based on how the speaker or writer phrased this sentence, we may conclude that the man has finished his work cycle at some point in the past. The action has now reached its conclusion by this point.
One of the most common ways to form past simple constructions is to use regular verbs. When you do this, all you have to change is the ending of the verb's infinitive form. Namely, you will add the -ed suffix to the end of the verb you want to change. We can look at some examples to illustrate this point.
Irregular verbs can also take on the past tense in its simple form, and you’ll need to note these exceptions in order to use them properly. Verbs such as to have, get, or feel have irregular past forms like had, got, or felt. Further, any simple past verbs should not change form depending on the subject.
The past simple tense should be relatively straightforward as a learning exercise for most students. However, guides such as this one can provide some solid examples to help anyone learn the basic constructions of this form. Further, it is good to note and use some of the exceptions or irregular verbs that can take this tense.