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 , you can click it!

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