Past Simple Tense  

What is the past simple tense?

The past simple tense (also called the simple past tense, or simply the past simple) is used to express completed actions. We often use the past simple with an adverb or adverbial phrase that specifies a time from the past, such as yesterday, last year, an hour ago, etc.


This tense is known as the past simple because, like the present simple tense, it does not require any auxiliary verbs to complete its meaning; its structure is simply the subject + the past tense form of the verb.
For example:
  • I went to the park.”
  • The speaker’s action of going to the park has been completed. The verb go is therefore put in the simple past tense, went.
However, we do not know anything about when the action was completed. We often add adverbs or adverbial phrases that provide additional information about past time, which can be placed at the beginning or end of the sentence. If appearing at the beginning of the sentence, these adverbs are often set apart by commas (although this is not necessary if the information is only one or two words). However, this information can’t come between the subject and the verb, and it usually does not come between the verb and any information that is necessary to complete the verb’s meaning (such as its direct object or an adverbial complement). For example:
In more stylized writing, however, adverbials relating to time will sometimes come between a verb and its complement, which gives them extra emphasis in the sentence. For example:
  • I wrote over an hour ago to my sister, but have yet to hear a reply.”
Notice that the tone becomes much more formal and the sentence sounds a bit more convoluted. In most cases, it is best to avoid this structure.

Types of sentences

Positive (affirmative) sentences

The types of past simple tense sentences we’ve looked at so far have all been examples of positive sentences, also known as affirmative sentences. These tell the reader what did happen. We can also create negative, interrogative, and negative interrogative sentences in the past simple tense; however, the structure of the sentence changes slightly in each case.

Negative sentences

In contrast to positive sentences, negative sentences in past simple tense tell the reader what did not happen. To form negative sentences in the past simple tense, we must use the auxiliary verb did (the past tense of do) together with not before the main verb of the sentence. The main verb, meanwhile, goes back to present simple tense, which is the infinitive form of the verb without to. For example:
  • “I did not eat the cookie.”
  • “She didn’t enjoy the movie.”
  • “He didn’t have to leave so early.”

Interrogative sentences (questions)

Like negative sentences, we have to use the auxiliary verb did to make interrogative sentences (sentences that ask questions) in the past simple tense. In this case, however, did comes before the subject, rather than the verb.
We can see this construction more clearly if we compare affirmative vs. interrogative constructions:
  • Affirmative: “I went to the park.”
  • Interrogative: “Did you go to the park?”
  • Affirmative: “Janet saw a great movie on Friday.”
  • Interrogative: “Did Janet see a movie on Friday?”
  • Affirmative: “They mowed the lawn already.”
  • Interrogative: “Did they mow the lawn yet?”

With question words

We can also use question words (such as who/whom, what, where, etc.) before did if we are asking for specific information. For example:
  • Who/whom did you see?”
  • What did you wear last night?"
  • When did they arrive?”
Additionally, we can use who without the auxiliary did in interrogative sentences in the past simple tense. In this case, it is functioning as an interrogative pronoun and acts as the subject of the sentence. Because we no longer need did to complete the sentence’s meaning, we use the past tense of the main verb once again.
  • Who went to the movie with you?”
  • Who left their wallet behind?”

Negative interrogative sentences

Negative interrogative sentences also ask a question, but they imply that the speaker expects the answer to be (or believes the answer should be) “yes.” We form these by adding the auxiliary verb did before the subject of the sentence and the word not after the subject. Did and not are very often contracted, in which case didn’t comes before the subject:
  • Didn’t you go to Europe last year?”
  • Did Jessie not try the cake we baked for her?”
  • Did I not tell you to clean your room an hour ago?”
  • Didn’t he say he was leaving in the morning?”

Other types of sentences

The types of sentences we’ve covered above are the most common uses of the past simple tense. However, there are a couple of other ways we can use the past simple to express specific meanings.

Emphatic did – the past emphatic tense

There is another way that we can form a positive sentence in the past simple tense. It is known as the past emphatic tense, and it is formed by using did before the main verb, which is in present tense. It is the same construction as negative sentences in the past simple tense, except that we leave out the word not.
This form places special emphasis on the fact that something happened in the past, which is usually used as a means of explanation or to convince someone of something. For example:
  • “But I’m telling you, I did clean my room when you asked me to!”
  • “John was in a sorry state last night. I suppose he did have a lot to drink.”
We can hear the emphasis that is placed on the word did in these sentences if we read them aloud, and it is this stress that creates the explanatory intonation in the text.

Using the past simple tense for hypotheticals (the subjunctive mood)

If we are expressing a wish or desire, we usually use the past tense; for a present wish, we use the past simple.
For example:
  • “I wish it weren’t/wasn’t Monday.”
  • “I wish I didn’t have to go to work.”
This is an example of what’s called the subjunctive mood in English, which is used for expressing things that are hypothetical or not objectively factual. To learn more about how the past simple tense is used in this way, see the section on subjunctive mood under the chapter on Mood.

1. What do we primarily use the past simple tense for?

2. In which of the following types of sentences do we need the auxiliary verb did to make the past simple tense?

3. Select the sentence below that is correct:

4. Where does the auxiliary verb did appear in an interrogative sentence that does not use question words?

5. Which of the following sentences is not in the past simple tense?

Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.
Share Tweet