Past Simple Tense: Definition, Structure, and Usage

The simple past tense is a grammatical tense used to describe actions, events, or states that happened or were completed at a specific point in the past. It is used to convey information about an action that is no longer ongoing and has already been completed.

In other words, use the simple past tense when discussing actions and processes that started and finished before the present moment.

For example:

  • I ran through the sprinkler yesterday on my way to school.
  • They watched my brother play video games all summer. 
  • We always bought the freshest produce directly from the farm.

How Do You Form the Past Simple Tense?

You need a subject and a verb to form a standard sentence in the simple past tense. This is common between all sentences in order to show an action that has occurred, is occurring, or will occur. 

Let’s look at how you can form sentences in the simple past tense form: 

The Past Simple Tense Formula

The formula to create a past simple tense sentence is:

  • Subject + Verb (-ed) + Object

Usually, you can use the simple past tense by taking the root form of the verb (its infinitive form without “to”) and adding “-ed” at the end.

  • Walk—walked
  • Start—started
  • Play—played

However, when dealing with an irregular form, you must learn the correct past simple form by heart for each verb, as you can’t use the same formula used for regular verbs.

Concerning Irregular Verbs

Irregular verbs don’t follow the same tense rules for the past tense and participle. Sadly, each irregular verb is different, and people who want to master the English language will have to learn the forms of each verb. 

There are roughly 200 irregular verbs in the English language. Here are some examples of simple past tense forms for irregular verbs:

  • Awake—awoke
  • Blow—blew
  • Become—became
  • Cut—cut
  • Drink—drank
  • Forgive—forgave
  • Grow—grew
  • Keep—kept
  • Make—made
  • Read—read
  • Sing—sang
  • Stand—stood
  • Think—thought

What Are the Different Uses of the Past Simple Tense?

There are various scenarios during which you would use the past simple tense. Look at these different uses and their related examples so you can apply them to your speech and writing.

  1. When you need to talk about something that has already happened. 
  • I traveled to Europe last summer.
  • They shopped for new school clothes last weekend.
  • My mother showed her garden to the committee last spring and entered the competition.
  1. When you need to talk about something that happened in the distant past. 
  • Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
  • American forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
  1. When you’ve used another tense and want to introduce a finished action. 

Rarely should you change tense within a paragraph, but there are occasions when a shift in tense is acceptable. When this occurs, it should be done to point out a finished action despite other tenses used within related, surrounding sentences.

  • I’ve been studying Spanish for eight years. Last year, I went to Spain.
  • I work hard to be the best I can be. My boss recognized this effort in our last meeting. 

Past Simple Tense Question Formation

The formula to create a past simple tense question is:

  • Did + Subject + Verb root

You can use other interrogative words if placed before the word did.

For example:

  • Did your brother finish his homework last night?
  • Where did the dog run off to?
  • Who did you speak to?

Past Simple Tense Negative Formation

To make the sentence negative, here is the formula for this type of sentence form: 

  • Subject + did not (didn’t)  + verb root

For example:

  • He missed the test because he didn’t wake up in time.
  • You did not take the garbage out this morning, did you?
  • I didn’t expect the temperature to be this low in September.

If you need to form a negative sentence using the verb “to be,” you don’t have to add the auxiliary “did.” For sentences that have singular subjects, you can use “was not.” For plural subjects, the correct form is “were not.”

For example:

  • I was not happy with the outcome./I wasn’t happy with the outcome.

They were not there when I needed them the most./They weren’t there at a time when I needed them the most.