Sandi from Inspiration for Writers wrote to ask:
“Can you do a segment on Past vs. Passed–if you haven’t already? Too many get these words mixed up.”
Very happy to oblige, Sandi!
Past – relates to location
The word past locates something in time, and sometimes in space. It can be
used as an adjective, noun, or adverb.
“Past” as an adjective
The first definition which the OED gives for past as an adjective is “Gone by in time; elapsed; done with; over.” For example:
- “The days for mourning are now past.”
When attributed to a group of people, past can also mean “Having served one’s term of office; former.” (OED)
- “All past presidents of the United States were male.”
And in grammar, we have more examples of past being used as an adjective, such as in “past tense” and “past participle”.
“Past” as a noun
The main meaning for the noun form of past, given by the OED, is “The time that has gone by; a time, or all of the time, before the present.”
- “In the past, standards were higher.”
- “We cannot live in the past.”
“Past” as a preposition
As a preposition, past can mean: “Beyond in time; after; beyond the age for or time of; (in stating the time of day) so many minutes, or a quarter or half of an hour, after a particular hour.” (OED)
- “It is almost half past five.”
It can also be used for location: “Beyond in place; further on than; at or on the further side of; to a point beyond.” (OED)
- “My house is the one just past the turning.”
“Past” as an adverb
The first meaning the OED cites for past being used as an adverb is “So as to pass or go by; by.” For example:
- “The ball sped past the goalkeeper.”
Passed – a verb in the past tense
Passed is the past participle of the verb “to pass”. It can be an intransitive verb (one which doesn’t require an object) or a transitive verb (one which requires both a subject and one or more objects).
“To pass” means “To proceed, move forward, depart; to cause to do this.” (OED) This can refer to movement forwards in time, in space, or in life (such as “to pass an examination”).
- “The weeks passed quickly.” (Intransitive: subject “the weeks” and no object).
- “I passed all my exams!” (Transitive: subject “I” and object “my exams”.)
- “He passed the ball well during the match earlier.” (Transitive: subject “He” and object “the ball”.)
When do “past” and “passed” get confused?
Often, writers muddle the words past and passed in sentences such as:
- “The heroes passed a village on their way towards the mountains.”
It’s common to see this written as:
- “The heroes past a village on their way towards the mountains.”
But the word should be passed, as (in this sentence) it’s the past participle of the verb “to pass”. An easy way to tell is to rewrite the sentence in the present tense, as though you’re describing something which is happening currently:
- “The heroes pass a village on their way towards the mountains.”
- or “The heroes are passing a village on their way towards the mountains.”
However, if you wrote:
- “The heroes walked past a village on their way towards the mountains.”
It’s correct to use past. The verb in this sentence is “walked”, and the “past” is acting as an adverb.
Unusual uses of the word “passed”
Most of the time, passed is a verb, as described above. There are a few occasions when it can be used as a noun or an adjective, though. For example:
- “Don’t speak ill of the passed.” (noun)
– This comes from the phrase “passed-away”.
- “A passed pawn” (adjective)
– Term used in chess.
- “A passed ball” (adjective)
– Term used in baseball.
- “A passed midshipman/fireman/surgeon” (adjective)
– Someone who has passed a period of instruction and qualified through examination – apparently this usage arose in the navy.
Have you come across any other unusual uses? Are there still any cases where you’re not sure whether to use passed or past? Share your examples with us in the comments below!
Why Do People Confuse “Past” and “Passed”, Anyway?
The words “past” and “passed” are homonyms (or homophones): they sound alike, but they’re two different words. This makes it easy to confuse them when writing – just like people often confuse the words “there”, “their” and “they’re”.
It doesn’t help that “past” and “passed” have quite similar meanings, each referring to movement relating to a fixed point (in time, space, or even life). This means it’s a lot easier to muddle them up than it is with some other homonyms with very different meanings, like “blue” and “blew”.
For a whole list of homonyms that commonly get confused, check out 25 Confused Homonym Pairs.
Quick Rules of Thumb When Dealing With “Past” and “Passed”
If you’re still struggling with “past” and “passed”, remember, “past” can’t be used as a verb.
If you find it hard to identify a verb, try replacing “passed” with the words “went by”, and see if your sentence works:
The heroes passed a village on their way towards the mountains.
The heroes went by a village on their way towards the mountains.
Time passed slowly that afternoon.
Time went by slowly that afternoon.
(This won’t work in every case – e.g. “He passed his exams” won’t sound right as “He went by his exams” – but it’ll help you a lot of the time.)
Alternatively, as mentioned above, you can rewrite the sentence in the present tense, as though it’s happening right now.
Right/Wrong Examples of the Use of Past and Passed
Sometimes, it’s helpful to take a look at some examples so you can double-check if you’re using “past” and “passed” the right way:
Right: He ran straight past the bus stop. (“Past” is acting as a preposition here and could be replaced with the word “by”)
Wrong: He ran straight passed the bus stop. (“Passed” can’t be a preposition.)
Right: He passed the bus stop on his run. (“Passed” is a past-tense verb here and could be replaced with “went by”.)
Wrong: He past the bus stop on his run. (“Past” can’t be a verb.)
Right: She passed the time by reading a novel. (Here, “passed” is a transitive verb and “time” is the direct object.)
Wrong: She past the time by reading a novel. (“Past” can’t be a verb.)
Right: It is past the time you should be home. (“Past” is a preposition here. You could replace it with “after” or “beyond”.)
Wrong: It is passed the time you should be home. (“Passed” can’t be a preposition.)
Hopefully this helps clear up any “past” vs “passed” confusion for you.
“Past” vs “Passed” Quiz
For each sentence, select whether “past” or “passed” is correct.