What is the simple past tense? When and how use it?
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The simple past is also called preterite in English, or past simple. No difference then, it’s the same thing.
It’s really an essential tense to know in English, so please be focused!
1/ What is the use of the past simple in English?
The past simple is used to describe an action, or to tell an event that happened before the moment we are talking and that is now over.
Look carefully, the following sentences all use the past simple:
- I went to the cinema yesterday.
- She saw her mother last week.
- He was in Paris last year.
- Where did you go?
- I didn’t like the movie.
- They worked together for two years.
2/ Construction of the past simple in English:
- Affirmative sentence => subject + Verbal basis + ed (or an irregular verb)
- Negative sentence => subject + didn’t + infinitive verb (go, buy, work…)
- Questioning sentence => Did + subject + infinitive verb (go, buy, work…)
|I / you / we / they||I played|| I didn’t (= did not) play
||Did I play ?_|
|he / she / it||He played_||He didn’t (= did not) play_||Did he play ?_|
- You played tennis.
- Did you play tennis ?
- You didn’t (= did not) play tennis.
- She went to the supermarket.
- Did she go to the supermarket ?
- She didn’t go to the supermarket.
- Did you pay for your train ticket ?
- (+) Yes, I paid for my train ticket. (or= Yes, I did.)
- (-) No, I didn’t pay for my train ticket. (or= No, I didn’t.)
⚠ For a negative question, did is replaced by didn’t:
- Didn’t they have enough money to buy it?
⚠ In the past simple, regular verbs end in -ed:
- She waited for them at the train station.
- He finished work late last friday.
- They decided to go to the cinema last night.
- They played baseball yesterday.
- I lived in London two years ago.
⚠ There are also many irregular verbs in the past simple! They don’t end up in -ed:
- I went to the pub last night.
- He saw his girlfriend a few days ago.
- They said they met him at the club.
- She bought this hat last week.
You have to learn irregular verbs by heart because you can’t invent them (click here for the complete list).
⚠ Be careful, many verbs do not change in the simple past:
⚠ ‘read‘ does not change either to past simple writing, but it is pronounced “red” orally (like the colour red!):
‘He read a book last week’in a text is pronounced orally ‘He red a book…’
⚠ In the interrogative form, we can also use when, why, who, what…
- When did you work at the bar ? I worked at the bar last week.
- Why did she go to the train station ? She went to the train station to say goodbye to her parents.
- Who did they meet at the club last night ? They met Tom with his girlfriend.
⚠ “Do” can also be the main verb in the sentence:
- What did you do last week ?
- I didn’t do that !
3/ The verb to be in the past simple:
Be becomes was / were.
|I / he / she / it||I was||I was not (= wasn’t)||was I ?_|
|we / you / they||you were_||you were not (= weren’t)_||were you ?_|
- I was tired last night.
- Were you tired last night ?
- He wasn’t tired last night.
- How was the test ? It wasn’t difficult at all !
⚠ Be careful, if you use was / were in an interrogative or negative sentence, you shouldn’t put did !
4/ The verb to have in the past simple:
Have becomes Had to all persons:
|I / you / he / she / it / we / you / they||I had||I didn’t have_||Did I have ?_|
- He had a new car for his birthday.
- They had plenty of time to do it.
- They didn’t have enough time to go there.
- Did you have enough money?
- How many beer did you have ?
⚠ In the negative and interrogative form, it is necessary to use have (and not had or has)
⚠ In negative questions and sentences, be careful to put the infinitive after did / didn’t !!!!
- I didn’t eat it
I didn’t ate it
- I didn’t do it
I didn’t did it
- I didn’t push him
I didn’t pushed him
- He didn’t steal your money
He didn’t stole your money
- Did you see her ?
Did you saw her ?
- Did she go there ?
Did she went there ?
⚠ In many examples in this lesson you will have noticed that there is a time indication (date or duration):
before / last week end / last night / last friday / yesterday / before yesterday / a few days ago / two years ago / three month ago / for one year / for four months …
It is not necessarily mandatory:
- I enjoyed the show.
- He prefered that movie.
- She waited at the bus stop.
- We loved it !
⚠ We can use the simple past to talk about habits, tastes or routines in the past:
- When I was a kid, I loved pizzas.
- He smoked cigarettes when he was young.
- I ran every day when I was in High School.