Simple Past Tense Rules, Uses, and How to Learn It

""

For people learning English, simple past tense rules can be one of the hardest concepts to learn and master. There are usually four major roadblocks to your success:

  • You don’t know when you need to use the simple past tense
  • You are not familiar with the regular and irregular verb conjugations for the simple past
  • You forget how to form simple past sentences
  • You have troubles getting it right when you are speaking

The upside is that all of this is common. Learning the simple past in English takes a lot of practice and determination. 

In this article, we want to help you address all four of the above issues. Let’s get started.

Advertisements

If you have any questions about the simple past, feel free to email us by clicking on the link below and filling in our form. If this is too much work for you, just comment on this post, and we will do our best to reply quickly.  Or, you can look at simple past tense examples to learn irregular conjugations.

click here to ask questions about simple past tense rules

Simple Past Tense Uses

As far as usage is concerned, the simple past tense is pretty easy compared to other verbs tenses in English. We use the simple past when we want to:

  • Describe a completed action that occurred in the past

 I went to the library yesterday.
He put his clothes away after school.

  • Describe a previous state of being

She was sad all last week.
They were older when they had kids.

That’s it. Pretty easy, right? Just remember that when we are talking about the past, and we want to emphasize that the action or state of being is complete, then we use the simple past.

Simple Past Verb Conjugations

One of the first skills to master when learning the simple past is to learn how to conjugate or change the verb to suit the tense. Remember that in English, we change the verb to fit the tense and match the subject.

When talking about verb conjugation, we typically split verbs into two camps: regular and irregular. Regular verbs in the simple past follow a specific pattern. The majority of verbs are considered regular verbs.

Irregular verbs do not follow the same pattern as regular verbs, and so you will need to memorize their simple past conjugations.

To learn the simple past, you must be familiar with both regular and irregular verb conjugations.

The Regular Verb Conjugation Pattern in the Simple Past

add "ed" to the end of the root verb to make it fit the past tense

For regular verbs, it is pretty easy to conjugate into the simple past. 

All you have to do is end the root of the verb with “ed.”

Examples:

touch – touched
match – matched
fold-folded

Exceptions for Regular Verbs

exceptions to the simple past tense

There are always exceptions in English. Here are the big ones to look out for when it comes to regular verbs in the simple past. These are not irregular verbs, as they do still follow a pattern.

1. Ending in “E” 

Verbs that already end in “e,” only need a “d” added to the end.

Rake > Raked 
Fake > Faked
Time > Timed

2. Ending in “Y” 

Verbs that end in “y” and are preceded with a consonant will have the “y” removed, and then you add “ied.”

Hurry > Hurried
Marry > Married
Carry > Carried

Verbs that end in “y” but are preceded by a vowel will keep their “y” and add “ed.”

Play > Played
Stay > Stayed
Enjoy > Enjoyed

3. Ending in “L” 

Verbs that end in “l” are a little special.

In American spelling, you just add “ed.”
In British spelling, you double the “l” and add “ed.”

travel > traveled/travelled
shovel > shoveled/shovelled

4. Ending Preceded by a Stressed, Short Vowel

This can be a little tricky. It may just be easier to treat these verbs as irregular and memorize the ones that follow this rule.

For these verbs, you need to see whether the final letter is preceded by a short vowel that is stressed when you say it. Lots to remember and hard to identify. 

When you get this kind of verb, you double the ending consonant and add -ed.

Slap > slapped

For this rule, it can be good to understand why we do this. Let’s say that we don’t double the consonant, and slap becomes “slaped.” If you follow the Magic E rule, then the “a” would make a long a sound instead of the short a sound that it should. 

To get around the Magic E issue, we double the consonant and keep the vowel with its intended short sound. 

Irregular Verb Conjugation

Irregular verb conjugations are verbs that do not follow the patterns laid out above. For these verbs, you will need to remember that they are irregular and then memorize their conjugations.

In this section, we will layout a couple of the main irregular verbs that you should know. To get a more in-depth look at important irregular conjugations, take a look at our simple past examples page.

In most of our examples, the simple past conjugation is the same for all subjects. The exception is “to be” which uses both “was” and “were.”

To Be – Was/Were

I was
You were
He/She/It was
We were
They were

I was sad yesterday.
You were born in 1985.
He was a pilot when he was younger.
We were in Kentucky in January.
They were baseball fans.

To Have – Had

Yesterday I had a cold.

To Go – Went

Last month, we went to the zoo.

To Do – Did

Did he say that?

To Say – Said

Yesterday he said that he wanted to go there.

To Make – Made

I made two pies for today.

To See – Saw

She saw the movie last week.

Advertisements

Simple Past Tense Rules for Sentence Formulas

Conjugations are important, but you also need to know how to use these verbs in a proper sentence. To do this, you need to be familiar with the basic sentence formulas used in simple past tense rules. 

The basic simple past tense formula can be split into three categories:

  • Positive sentences
  • Negative sentences
  • Questions

Positive sentences should be pretty easy (once you learn the verb conjugations), but you will need to get used to the unique ways that negative sentences and questions are formed. Let’s look at each kind of sentence one at a time.

The below formulas are general guides for most cases, but there are exceptions. Don’t forget to read the section below our formulas to read about these exceptions.

Positive Sentences Formula

subject + past tense verb + object + (time)

In its most basic form, the positive sentence follows the same SVO pattern (Subject + Verb + Object) that you have used before. The trick here will be remembering to properly conjugate your verb, but otherwise, it should not be overly difficult.

Examples

I went to the park.
She ran quickly.
We played football.

With the past tense, you will often see time words like yesterday, last year, or last month. These words will often come at the end of the sentence. They can come at the beginning, but for beginners, it is better to stick with the end.

I went to the park this morning.
She ran quickly yesterday.
We played football last weekend.

Negative Sentences Formula

Subject + did not/didn’t + root verb + object + (time)

The negative sentence formula is, in some ways, easier than the positive sentence formula. Why? Because you do not need to worry about conjugation very much.

However, it may take you some time to remember the pattern and do it right every time. 

For the negative sentence formula, it may be easiest to look at some examples.

did not go to the park 
She did not run quickly.
We did not play football yesterday.

What do you notice? In the negative, the main verb (go, run, play) is not conjugated into its past tense form. It stays in its root form. Pretty easy right? 

However, what we do need to do is conjugate the verb “do” into its past tense form of “did” and add “not”. Or we can shorten “did and not” to “didn’t.”

The formula should look like this: Subject + did not/didn’t + root verb + object + (time)

More Examples

They didn’t write the test last month.

The computer didn’t work yesterday.

You didn’t visit your mother last week.

Question Formula

Did + Subject + root verb + object + (time) + ?

Once we understand the negative sentence formula, making questions should be pretty easy as well. Like with the negative formula, when you make a question, your main verb will stay in its root form while you use “do” in the past tense form of “did.”

Questions will reverse the formula a little bit and will look like this: 

Did + subject + root verb + object + (time) + ?

Examples:

Did you go to the park this morning?

Did she run quickly yesterday?

Did we play football last weekend?

The Exception With Was and Were Sentences

In most past tense cases, you are going to use the formulas above. However, there is an exception when it comes to was and were.

We can look at an example to see how things change.

Let’s say you were sad yesterday. You could make a sentence like this:
was sad yesterday.

This is the positive form. If we follow the above formulas, the negative form should look like this:
I did not be sad yesterday. 

This is wrong! Instead of using “did,” we need to use was/were.
was not sad yesterday.

The question would then look like this:
Were you sad yesterday?

More Examples

was in Rome last year.
wasn’t in Rome last year.
Were you in Rome last year?
They were born in 1990.
They weren’t born in 1990.
Were they born in 1990?
He was sick last week.
He was not sick last week?
Was he sick last week?

As you can see, the general pattern remains the same. The big difference is that was/were will replace “did” in the sentence. Here is what the revised formulas look like:

Positive Formula with was/were

Subject + was/were + object + (time)

Negative with was/were

Subject + was/were + not + object + (time)

Subject + was/were + not + object + (time)

Question with was/were

Was/Were + subject + object + (time) + ?

Was/Were + subject + object + (time) + ?

10 Examples of Simple Past Tense Sentences

Sometimes the best way to learn how to use a new verb tense is to see it in action. Now that we have gone over the formulas, try to understand the grammar of these next ten examples of simple past sentences. Do they all make sense to you?

  1. I went to the mall yesterday after school.
  2. She didn’t like the pizza we ate last weekend.
  3. Why didn’t he go to the movies with us yesterday?
  4. Where did you live last year? 
  5. We visited my grandmother yesterday before church. 
  6. It wasn’t broken the last time that I saw it.
  7. Didn’t you want to travel to Europe this summer?
  8. Was it rainy yesterday?
  9. My friends Bill and Pam moved out of their condo last month.
  10. Tim and I didn’t meet until high school. 

How Do We Master Speaking in the Simple Past?

The good news is that you have already taken the first step. If you want to be good at using this tense and sound like a native speaker, you need to first understand the grammar. You can do that by reading and understanding this article.

The next step is the hard part. You need to use your new knowledge over and over and over again. You want to get to a point where you are so familiar with the conjugations and formulas that you don’t even have to think about it.

So how do you do that?

1. Read

Read whatever you can, whenever you can. Every time your brain encounters the simple past, you can reaffirm the rules and become more familiar with the irregular conjugations.

2. Write

One of the best ways to learn a language is to use it. Writing can give you chance to show that you know how to use the language properly. Use free websites like LingQ to start a writing partnership. You can learn more about LingQ with our LingQ review.

Or you can start a pen pal relationship on a website like Interpals and get your practice in that way.

3. Speak

Finding someone that can help you speak can be difficult. You may not live somewhere with lots of native English speakers.

Start by looking for local language circles or language exchanges. If those don’t work for you, try a service like iTalki where you can find other people looking to exchange languages for free.

If you don’t have the time to waste, but have some money, then look for tutors either locally or online. We recently reviewed a website allied Cambly that looks to help you improve your speaking online with native English speakers. 

Advertisements

Learn Verbs with The Learner’s Nook

If you are interested in learning more about verbs in English, we have plenty of verb resources at our Verbs in English page.

Explore more verb resources

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s