Taking another Pass at “Passed”
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:
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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