Passed vs Past

By Ali Hale

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”).

For example:

  • “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!

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193 Responses to “Passed vs Past”

  • Katie

    I can get the hang of ‘past’ and ‘passed’ in most instances but for some reason really can’t get my head around which is right to use in sentences like the following:

    “She looked passed him to James, a pleading expression on her face.”

    “He shot them a look as he passed them on his way to the door.”

    Am I using the wrong word in those sentences…?

  • Koko

    You are past your end date or you are passed your end date?
    Your end date has passed? or Your end date has past?

  • Stephanie

    An example I have is “I’m long past that now.”

  • stephen

    I can’t get my head around passed and past. How should it read. Choy passed him his drink, or, Choy past him his drink.? He glanced past her at the spider on the wall, or, he glanced passed her at the spider on the wall. Silly I know but it throws me every time.

  • Colin

    Whereas all the “past vs passed” questions are very legitimate, never forget that you will usually be able to work around your dilemma by using alternative sentence structure and/or words. This is very useful when a quick decision is required.

    Glad those teenage days are long passed/past – substitute “long gone”
    Glad those teenage days are in the past (should be no confusion here)
    Passed\Past due – substitute Overdue.
    etc.

    Whereas it is certainly important to understand as many idiosyncracies of the English Language as possible in order to communicate in writing effectively, it is always worth keeping in mind that there many ways to effectively convey the same message.

  • Lucy

    What is correct, please. I can’t find it in the article or comments.

    I wouldn’t put it past her

    I wouldn’t put it passed her

    Also, why?
    Thank you!

  • Dee

    Hi thanks for this article
    I am struggling with the following, it is used in a speech expressing concern:

    “that is quite a good sign, especially since the time that has passed since her arrival”

    I keep yo-yoing between past and passed, it is a passage of time so I want to use past but then it is also indicating something that is moving past as the time is still on going and I think passed looks correct.

    any help would be greatly received thanks

  • Kathy

    “Glad those teenage days are long *passed*.”

    I wavered but setted on “passed” rather that “past”. I believe the word is being used as a past participle of the verb “to pass” in the sentence.

    Agree or disagree?

  • Dave

    vanessa,

    Since you are speaking in present tense with “hold” continue with present tense on your second action and “pass the stinky smell as quickly as possible.”

  • Dave

    Roy,

    Past would be the correct use (as a preposition of location) but try to avoid passive voice. I would rewrite your sentence to this:

    Benzene forced past the seal system resulted in conducting a full inspection of primary and secondary seals as well as all roof components.

  • Roy Token

    Which sentense is correct:

    A full inspection of both the primary and secondary seals and all roof components was conducted in response to benzene being forced past the seal system.
    OR
    A full inspection of both the primary and secondary seals and all roof components was conducted in response to benzene being forced passed the seal system.

  • vanessa

    I was wondering if it is proper to say,”I hold my breath and get passed the stinky smell as quickly as possible.”

  • Jeremy Barger

    Graham, that’s not right. In both of your first two examples, the word is “passed”. Time has passed, time passed, but that time is in the past and it’s past time to get past it. One thing you need to know is that “past” is never a verb.

    Matt, that would be past due. Something could have passed the due date, but nothing could be passed due.

  • Matt

    Is the phrase “passed due” correct? or is it past due?

    Help!

  • Graham

    How about, “the year just passed” vs. “the year just past”? Or “this Wednesday past” vs. “this Wednesday passed”?

    My inclination in the second is to use “past”, as in past time. I’m not so sure about the first, because there is the sense of passed time, that is, motion of time past a reference point.

    I would refer to a car that has just gone by me in the street as “the car just passed”, so why not refer to the year that has just gone by as “the year just passed”?

    I guess there’s a difference between the two examples.

    “The year just passed” is a contraction of “The year that has just passed”, and here “passed” is correct, as a past form of “to pass”. “This Wednesday past” has no implied motion verb, it is just a noun phrase, and “past” fits. Similarly I would say “This year past” vs. “The year just passed”.

    Am I on the right track?

  • Feno

    My favorite method to check myself if i’m really unsure if it’s passed or past is to exchange the word against one similar from the same wordclass.

    So instead of “The group passed the crossroads and continued to travel into the mountains” I would look for another verb with a comparable meaning and insert it like “traversed”, “circled”, “circumvented”, “jumped” or even “crossed” (though that sounds awful in the example sentence)… maybe depending on the context “spent” if it’s something like “we passed the noon with homework”, or “went by” in a sentence like “The time passed faster than any of us had wished for” still it would always be a verb that gives the perfect match in the slot.

    for “past” it would be words like “along”, “across”, “through”, “after”, “over”, “behind” etc. And it will NEVER be a verb that fits here.

    You could even use that for the noun… just surrogate with “ancient times” “last year” or a similar denomiker of time that has gone by…

    As usually the danger of mixing them up is only occuring in a small range of meanings/context, this helps pretty well and i’m not aware of cases where it misled me.

  • venqax

    Fiona: the only “abbreviated” way to think of it that come to mind is to identify the verb in the sentence. Passed is the past tense of to pass. So if the verb is to pass, etc. Past tends to be an adjective (or less often a noun, the past). As in the type of tense described in the previous sentence. That is by no means a fix-all, but it is a handy first test that can get you through a lot of dilemmas, including your examples. If your 9 yr-old is getting questions like that, I’m sure he or she is already able to ID verb, noun, adjective, etc.

  • Fiona Scandrett

    The excercise below is in my 9yr olds homework.

    Write the words past or passed to complete these sentences.

    1.My aunty laughed as she walked___________us.
    2.We_________a calf on the path.

    I feel I know which is which. Q1. past Q2. passed, but how do I know that. How did they teach that to us in school and how do I teach it to my young child?

  • Chris

    Thank you. I just woke up after dreaming that Stephen Fry (who else?) was trying to explain all this to me. Of course he was limited by my own understanding. (It was actually just a very patient blurry face with a bent nose and a posh voice. Sorry Stephen.)

    Specifically: “I need to squeeze one car past the other.”
    and:” I did manage to pass her car with mine okay.”

    Now it is (hopefully) clearer, I can go back to sleep for him to remind me of my incorrect usage of brackets and colons. Or is it ‘use’?

    I’ve bookmarked this website. 🙂

  • pat

    John seems to be confusing things for people. Past tense of the verb ‘to pass’ is passed. If you passed the gate .. that would mean that you went past the gate

    Pass – move ( a doing word) you could pass past the gate

    Of course you could hand someone a gate presumably !

  • Rick V

    Is it okay to use “past” in an Old English sense such as

    “’til waves have past” – as in gone past?

    Thanks,

    RV

  • Renata jackson

    okay, which is the correct phrase:
    1) making all your dreams come to “pass” or
    2) making all your dreams come to “past”

  • venqax

    Confused Writer: Yes, “I walked past the twins” woud be correct. As in the e.g. above, “The heroes walked past a village on their way towards the mountains.” The verb in both sentences is “walked”, and the “past” is an adverb describing the walking.

    Mona: You would want past as well. As again, the e.g. above illustrates: “My house is the one just past the turning.” Here past denotes location, as a preposition, “Beyond in place; further on than; at or on the further side of; to a point beyond.” (OED)

  • Mona

    I am still not sure if I have to use Passed or Past when I want to say ” The scriprt could not go past or Passed that point where we left off”.

    Thanks,
    Mona

  • Confused Writer

    So if you say “I walked past the twins,” would it be correct, or incorrect?

    I am still confused.

  • Bill Girard

    Simple Rule: if you can use the word with the helping verb “has” or “have,” then it’s “passed.”

    e.g., When people die, they HAVE passed (away).
    e.g., The time to make speeches HAS passed.
    e.g., The time to make speeches is in the past.

    Note: while the verb “to be” is an auxiliary verb, too, only “to have” is used with the past participle (to indicate perfect aspect).

    So, “The time HAS…” calls for a past participle verb, i.e., PASSED;
    In contrast, “The time IS…” calls for a predicate adjective, i.e., PAST.

    Adjectival nouns, like “passed” when it stands for “person who has passed away” or “people who have passed an examination,” look odd grammatically, but only because of the omitted words.

  • Vivian

    Whe a man dies has he passed or past. I’ve always used past but I’m being told I’m wrong . I can’t believe I am wrong .

  • Otevia Andy

    I’m glad I read this article; it’s been of great help in making clear the difference between ‘past’ and ‘passed’. Nice one.

  • Nel

    English is such a confusing language, I know when to used past and passed but don’t really know why.

    “When I was running I passed the ball”

    Same words but two different meanings!

    They could mean I was running and went past the ball, or I had the ball and gave it to someone else when running.

  • Jenni

    What about “this passed December”? Or is it: “This past December”? If you say “Decemeber will pass” then I assume it would be “passed”. I am so confused. I have never been able to use these terms correctly, which frightens me as I went to a pretty good university. 🙁

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