What Is the Simple Past Tense? (with Examples)

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Simple Past Tense

The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that happened in the past. In other words, it started in the past and ended in the past. For example:
  • John baked a cake.
  • They painted the fence.

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing the simple past tense:

Infographic for the Simple Past Tense

Here is an infographic explaining the simple past tense:

simple past tense

Real-life Examples of the Simple Past Tense

Here are some real-life examples of the simple past tense:
  • I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. (Italian sculptor Michelangelo)
  • I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

Forming the Simple Past Tense

If you're dealing with a regular verb, the simple past tense is formed like this:
base form of verb
+
"ed"
  • jump > jumped
  • paint > painted
However, there are some spelling rules.

Spelling Rules

If a verb of one syllable ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], double the final consonant and add "ed":
  • chat > chatted
  • stop > stopped
If the final consonant is w, x, or y, don't double it:
  • sew > sewed
  • play > played
  • fix > fixed
If last syllable of a longer verb is stressed and ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], double the last consonant and add "ed":
  • incur > incurred
  • prefer > preferred
If the first syllable of a longer verb is stressed and the verb ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], just add "ed":
  • open > opened
  • enter > entered
  • swallow > swallowed
If the verb ends "e", just add "d":
  • thrive > thrived
  • guzzle > guzzled
If the verb ends [consonant + "y"], change the "y" to an "i" and add "ed":
  • cry > cried
  • fry > fried

Forming the Simple Past Tense of Irregular Verbs

If it's an irregular verb, the simple past tense is formed in all sorts of different ways. Here are some examples:
  • break > broke
  • catch > caught
  • find > found
  • see > saw
You just have to learn them.

Read more about irregular verbs (includes a list of the most common irregular verbs).

Using the Simple Past Tense

When making a statement, you can use the following word order:
[subject]
+
[verb]
  • The Martians landed near the aqueduct.
  • The burglar used the fire escape.

The Negative Version

If you need the negative version, you can use the following word order:
"did not"
+
base form of verb
  • The Martians did not land near the aqueduct.
  • (We could have used "didn't" instead of "did not.")
  • The burglar did not use the fire escape.

The Question Version

If you need to ask a question, you can use the following word order for a yes/no question:
"did"
+
[subject]
+
base form of verb
  • Did the Martians land near the aqueduct?
  • Did the burglar use the fire escape?
You can use the following word order for a question-word question:
[question word]
+
"did"
+
[subject]
+
base form of verb
  • Why did the Martians land near the aqueduct?
  • When did the burglar use the fire escape?
You can use the following word order for a choice question:
"did"
+
[subject]
+
base form of verb
+
choice A
+
or
+
choice B
  • Did the Martians land near the aqueduct or the town?
  • Did the burglar use the fire escape or the stairs?

The Simple Past Tense with Time Expressions

The simple past tense is often seen with a time expression explaining when the activity took place or how long it lasted.

Examples of "when an activity took place":
  • On Tuesday last week, the Martians landed near the aqueduct.
  • ("On Tuesday last week" tells you when it happened. It's called an adverbial phrase of time. Other examples are"Yesterday," "Last year," "Before breakfast,". They are really common. When any adverb appears at the front of a sentence, it is usual to follow it with a comma. A comma is not usually used when the adverbial phrase appears at the back of a sentence. NB: This is not a strict rule. Use a comma if it helps your reader.)
Read more about commas with adverbial phrases.
  • The Martians landed near the aqueduct on Tuesday last week.
  • (Note: No comma)
  • Just before he was caught, the burglar considered using the fire escape.
  • ("Just before he was caught" tells you when the activity took place.)
Examples of "how long an activity took":
  • Last week, the council inspected the drains.
  • ("Last week" tells you when it happened and for how long.)
  • Her daughter hid under the bed for three hours.
  • (Using "for" is a common way of describing how long an activity lasted.)

Verb Tense Widget

Use this widget to learn about the different tenses. How do you use this widget? Well, if there's a button, a drop-down menu, or a , then you can click it!
to base form

( verb)

Select the tenses.

Present Tenses

Simple Present Tense The simple present tense is mostly used to describe facts and habits. More...(opens new tab) I base form you base form he/she/it 3rd pers sing present we base form you base form they base form Present Progressive Tense The present progressive tense is used for an ongoing action in the present. More...(opens new tab) I am present participle you are present participle he/she/it is present participle we are present participle you are present participle they are present participle Present Perfect Tense The present perfect tense is used for actions that began in the past. (Often, the actions continue into the present.) More...(opens new tab) I have past participle you have past participle he/she/it has past participle we have past participle you have past participle they have past participle Present Perfect Progressive Tense The present perfect progressive tense is used for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present, or a continuous activity that began in past but has now finished (usually very recently). More...(opens new tab) I have been present participle you have been present participle he/she/it has been present participle we have been present participle you have been present participle they have been present participle

Past Tenses

Simple Past The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that happened in the past. More...(opens new tab) I past tense you past tense he/she/it past tense we past tense you past tense they past tense Past Progressive Tense The past progressive tense is used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action. More...(opens new tab) I was present participle you were present participle he/she/it was present participle we were present participle you were present participle they were present participle Past Perfect Tense The past perfect tense is used to emphasize that an action was completed before another took place. More...(opens new tab) I had past participle you had past participle he/she/it had past participle we had past participle you had past participle they had past participle Past Perfect Progressive Tense The past perfect progressive tense is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended. More...(opens new tab) I had been present participle you had been present participle he/she/it had been present participle we had been present participle you had been present participle they had been present participle

Future Tenses

Simple Future The simple future tense is used for an action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will base form you will base form he/she/it will base form we will base form you will base form they will base form Future Progressive Tense The future progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will be present participle you will be present participle he/she/it will be present participle we will be present participle you will be present participle they will be present participle Future Perfect Tense The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will have been completed at some point in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have past participle you will have past participle he/she/it will have past participle we will have past participle you will have past participle they will have past participle Future Perfect Progressive Tense The future perfect progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have been present participle you will have been present participle he/she/it will have been present participle we will have been present participle you will have been present participle they will have been present participle

The Other Past Tenses

The simple past tense is one of four past tenses. This table shows all four of the past tenses:
The 4 Past Tenses Example
simple past tense I went
past progressive tense I was going
past perfect tense I had gone
past perfect progressive tense I had been going

Slider Showing All the Tenses

The following slider shows all 12 tenses. The simple past tense is highlighted with a yellow background.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Take another test on the simple past tense Tenses Past progressive tense Past perfect tense Past perfect progressive tense Simple present tense Present progressive tense Present perfect tense Present perfect progressive tense Simple future tense Future progressive tense Future perfect tense Future perfect progressive tense Glossary of grammatical terms