Using the simple past

This lesson is in 2 parts. Part 1 explains how to conjugate English verbs into the simple past. Part 2 explains how to use the simple past in English.

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The simple past, sometimes called the preterite, describes a state of being or an action that began and was completed in the past. For example:

State of being

I was happy.

They felt comfortable.

Action

Susan bought a book.

We lived in France for two years.

Note that the events described using the simple past can be of short or long duration.

The simple past is frequently used with temporal adverbs (yesterday, last week, one year ago, etc).

Yesterday, I ate a sandwich for lunch.

In this example, we know the action occurred in the past for two reasons: because of the temporal adverb yesterday and because ate is the simple past of the verb EAT. More examples:

Two weeks ago, Tom participated in a half marathon.

Last night, we watched a movie on TV.

The simple past can recount a series of connected events that occurred in the past. Often times this series of events is preceded by the past progressive. In these situations the past progressive is used to create the scene. For example:

This morning I was walking* downtown when I saw Tom on First Street. We talked about
classes and then went to Giovanni’s Pizza and ate lunch together. After lunch he rode his bicycle to the beach and I returned home.

*Note that the past progressive describes a continuous event in the past. The simple past interrupts that event and recounts a series of events to conclude the story.

Asking questions using the simple past requires the use of the auxiliary verb DO. This rule applies to all verbs except BE (learn more). Notice that did is used, the simple past of the verb DO, and the main verb remains in the base form.

Yes / No questions
aux.
verb
subject main
verb
 
Did you eat pizza last night?
Did Tom go to work today?

Wh– questions
  aux.
verb
subject main
verb
 
When did they return home?
Where did she park the car?

Remember: The simple past is only one of four English past tenses.

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