Taking another Pass at “Passed”

By Maeve Maddox

In my early days as a classroom teacher, I would occasionally finish giving a lesson on some aspect of English grammar or punctuation with the feeling that it had been so clear and so filled with wonderful examples that my students would never commit a related error again.

It didn’t take me long to learn that common errors are common for a reason.

Minds differ. Not everyone perceives things in quite the same way. A case in point is the problem that many writers have with the words past and passed.

So far we’ve had two DWT posts on the past/passed usage:

Ali’s Passed vs Past and my Confusing “Passed” with “Past’

A recent e-mail question sent me back to read the comments and questions prompted by these posts.

The comments indicate the extent and nature of the confusion that exists concerning the use of passed and past. Even some of the commentators who felt they understood the usage gave incorrect information in the explanations they offered.

Some remarks suggest that the writer is trying to read more into the choice between passed and past than is warranted by a choice between a verb form and an adverb or a preposition.

Dr. Babosar, the founder of GHB BioMedical Inc. who dedicates his life in the XXX industry for the Passed/Past 20 years. (the fact is he is still in this industry and still running the company)

It doesn’t matter if the man is still in the industry or not. The word needed is an adjective: the past 20 years.

It was the sound of horses being ridden past.
It was the sound of horses being ridden passed. The latter makes sense [says the commentator]. The horses pass the person, so they passed the person, therefore it is the sound they make as they approach and then pass the person. It more correctly describes the sounds.

Again, too much ratiocination is going into this writer’s choice between past and passed. The function of the word in the sentence determines which form is called for. Ridden is a verb form. The word that follows it is an adverb. Passed cannot be used as an adverb. Past can.

Precise Edit made this observation in one of the comments:

In my experience, second-language learners are less likely to make this mistake [between passed and past] than native English speakers, perhaps because language learners write and speak from a background of training and not natural language use. I’m speculating, of course, but I wonder if direct training in usage and grammar affects this.

It’s not speculation. From what I can tell, not much “direct training in usage and grammar” is going on in U.S. English classes these days. The teaching of formal grammar and rules of spelling and punctuation is perhaps seen as too much akin to that dreaded concept “rote learning.”

Rules of standard usage are often arbitrary and confusing to an individual’s way of looking at things. For that reason they must be taught in the English classroom. Taught, not merely mentioned.

The complicated efforts to determine whether to use past or passed in a sentence is a symptom of the way U.S. children are taught to approach all learning. What do you think? How do you feel? Such appeals to the individual have their place, but not when it comes to basic information. Some things need to be memorized and drilled. The parts of speech and the parts of the sentence fall into this category.

One more time:
passed is the past tense form of the verb to pass:

to pass: transitive verb meaning “to go beyond a point or place”
The principal parts are pass, passed, (have) passed, passing
Examples: I pass my evenings alone. Please pass the potatoes.
I am passing my days in the garden. I am passing all my courses in college.
The truck passed the house. His uncle passed away. I have passed my driving test. Charlie has passed out the papers. The cat had passed beyond the fence before we noticed she was out.

The word past can be used as more than one part of speech, but never as a verb.

past: noun meaning “that which has happened in past time.”
Ex. That’s all in the past. It’s usually preceded by the word “the.”

past: adjective meaning “gone by in time; elapsed.”
Ex. I haven’t seen him for the past month.

past: adverb meaning “beyond.” Usually the point of reference is supplied by the context.
Ex. I cowered as the bullets whizzed past.
past: preposition meaning “beyond.” It differs from an adverb because it is followed by an object.
Ex. The bullet whizzed past my head.

Two more handy tips:
The only verb that belongs in front of passed is some form of have:
The days have passed quickly.
He had passed his exams before his father lost his job.
The horse has passed the finish line.

If the verb is is, don’t use passed:
For, lo, the winter is past.

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16 Responses to “Taking another Pass at “Passed””

  • Cat Woods

    I always love your examples.

    I guess I take certain things for granted. It is sad how past teaching plays a role in whether students succeed or not. Depending on the teacher, some of us have passed beyond the basic understanding of English, while others simply by-pass the rules altogether!

    Too bad there isn’t a standard teaching expectation across districts, states and the country.

  • Charlie

    When I read about usage situations like this one, I scratch my head. Then I remember that the schools no longer teach English, or Language, the way they did when I was in school. We were taught standard usage, vocabulary (definitions). We learned to conjugate verbs for tense and pairings. These were just the normal way to learn to write and speak correctly. But then this was back in the 1950-60s and I guess things have changed.

    I do cringe when I see grammatical or spelling errors. I find I feel that I should have a red pencil in hand . . .

  • Michael D. Brown

    Your explanation of the differences between “passed” and “past” is clear and informative, but I disagree with your last admonition not to use “passed” after the verb “is.” What about the passive voice?
    The ball is passed to the other player.

  • Sharon Taylor

    Your explanation of the correct usage is succinct and solid. The over-thinking examples you have included made me laugh – that is what happens when the conversation gets too far out of the box!

    However, you left out a major factor in this problem, and one that no amount of teaching will change: the words “past” and “passed” are pronounced the same way by the majority of English speakers, whether second-language learners or not. Like “to, too, & two” or “there, their & they’re” (which should be pronounced differently, but are usually not), most people will not stop to look beyond the pronounced word to figure out which spelling to use. They simply assume that the reader will “figure it out”. And they are usually right.

    I get so tired of teaching being blamed for poor grammar among educated people. No matter what teaching method is espoused, the results are remarkably similar: people from upper or middle class backgrounds with a good pre-school grounding in literacy readiness generally do well, while people from compromised backgrounds often struggle.

    I could have been left in a corner to just get on with my education (Canada, 1960s) without any interference from teachers with their endless worksheets and rules-by-rote. Others needed explanations and rules to follow, even when the rules were contradictory or insufficient. No method works for everyone.

  • Brad K.

    Maeve, Sorry – I am not familiar with that word, “ratiocination”.

    The example sentence you mention was ambiguous, “
It was the sound of horses being ridden passed. ” It could have meant, as the commenter (commentator?) described, that the horses, with the sound they made, were ridden past, so the sound of the passing would pass as well.

    If I drop the “It was” part, the sentence is merely ambiguous. That is, it could refer to the sound passing by, but seems more likely to be just wrong. “It was” clearly makes “sound” the object of the sentence, and hence the verb. Which makes “of horses” a mere description of the origin of the sound, and “being ridden past” a description of the horse action – with “being ridden” the verb, and “past” a description of “Being ridden”.

    “The sound of horses being ridden passed by,” though, uses passed in an adverb phrase, meets the intent of the commenter (commentator?), and reduces the ambiguity when trying to understand the sentence. Myself, I hunger to drop a comma after “ridden”. I use too many commas as I transcribe my thinking to expression, and I am trying to cut back. 😉

  • Melissa

    I think that writers commonly write as they speak. In native English, we pronounce ‘passed’ and ‘past’ the same way. I think one could argue that kids aren’t distinguishing the two as they write and unless it is drilled into their heads (much like ESL students).

  • Sylvia

    > It was the sound of horses being ridden past.
    What went “past”? Not the sound, but the horses (which were being ridden). Replace “being ridden” with “walking”, and it becomes obvious: “horses walking past”. Thus “It was the sound of horses walking past”; which leads to the more ambiguous “It was the sound of horses being ridden past”.

    “Past vs. passed” is OFTEN easy to determine. Just replace the word with “by”. If the resulting sentence makes sense, the word is “passed”, otherwise it’s “past”. This does not work in ALL cases but is useful for the majority:

    > Dr. Babosar, the founder of GHB BioMedical Inc. who dedicates
    > his life in the XXX industry for the BY 20 years…
    Obviously, BY doesn’t work, so the word is “past”.

    > I haven’t seen him for the BY month.
    So that’s got to be “past month”.

    Where it doesn’t work is when “past” has the meaning “beyond.”
    > I cowered as the bullets whizzed past.
    > The bullet whizzed past my head.

  • Peggye

    Rote learning may not not be fun, but it may be the only way to learn these basics that we will need for the rest of our lives. I, too, spent my undergrad years in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I am so grateful that the rote learning technique used by my excellent teachers imparted permanent language skills to me. I shudder when I read every day the mishmash resulting from ignorance of grammar.

  • Ian

    “If the verb is is, don’t use passed:
    For, lo, the winter is past.”

    Every time someone is selected, he is passed by.

  • Maeve Maddox

    As Michael says and Ian implies, “What about the passive voice?”

    I always get into trouble when I try coming up with a helpful generalization.

    I was thinking of is used as a helping verb with an action verb in the active voice. Unfortunately, when a “rule” has to be qualified to that extent, it’s not going to be of much use to those it is intended to help.

    As Melissa and Sharon and others have pointed out, the basic problem with passed and past is that they are pronounced the same. Perhaps one day past will be accepted as an alternate spelling of passed.

    As for me, I’ve written my final word on this topic!
    🙂

  • Valerie

    Thanks for a wonderfully lucid post. I too was educated in the 1950s and 60s and I feel like a dinosaur! The key with usages like these is to distinguish between form and function. Learning English grammar (which no one does nowadays) is surely about learning about how words function.
    Valerie

  • Lynn

    Finally! I had to read all three articles on this subject, before this one clarified it for me – at least for this moment. lol Thanks for trying, and then trying again. I’m saving this one, because I know I’ll be passing this way again. Thanks.

  • Andrew

    Jobs Overdue (Any cases past the due date)

    The above heading is from a website we’re altering, should it read past or passed?

    We can’t decide!
    Help!!

  • Valerie

    @ Andrew

    It should be ‘past’ = after the due date.

  • Fiona Gooda

    In my introduction to my new little B & B I have given directions to the house and people keep telling me I have used the wrong ‘passed’. I am sure I have not!

    It reads:
    1 mile up Church Road you will see Penn Lane on your left. Carry on passed it (about 50 meters) and Shaw Lodge is second driveway on the left.
    HELP please

  • Qrystal

    @Fiona (in case you come back to check, months after your comment!): the correct phrase would be “Carry on past it” unless you prefer “Carry on until you have passed it”.

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