Today’s article is going to be about conjugating verbs. We’ll look at one verb tense, the simple past. We’ll talk about how and when to use it, as well as how it is formed.
If you are an EFL/ESL student, you can use this article as a lesson to either learn or review this verb tense. If you’re a tutor or a teacher, you may find the article useful as well. If you wish to use all or parts of this posts to help you in teaching your students, feel free to copy and print.
So, let’s jump right in and look at how to use the simple past tense.
When do we use the simple past tense?
Completed Past Actions
This tense is used to talk about actions, situations or events that started and finished in the past even if the specific time itself is not actually mentioned but implied.
- This morning, she prepared a delicious breakfast.
- He loved the new Star Wars movie.
Series of Actions
It’s also used to list a series of actions that took place and were completed in the past. The actions took place in a specific order, first one, then the next, etc.
- After he finished work, he walked to the store and then walked home.
The simple past can be used with longer actions that started and finished in the past. These longer actions can be expressed by using specific phrases that clarify this such as: for three years, for two weeks, all afternoon, etc.
- She lived at that address for three years.
(She lived there for a period of 3 years but she’s no longer living there – finished action in the past.)
- I waited for Michael at the mall for 2 hours, then I went home.
(I was there at the mall waiting for Michael for 2 hours before I decided to stop waiting – finished action in the past.)
It is also used to describe past habits. To make sure it’s understood that we are referring to a habit, we normally add words such as: usually, often, when I was a child, etc.
Generalizations and Facts
The tense is used to describe facts or generalizations that used to be true but are no longer so. This use is similar to the meaning ‘used to’.
- When he was younger he loved the cold, but now he hates it.
What is a ‘when clause?‘
A ‘when clause‘ is made up of words that have meaning but are not a complete sentence and it starts with the word when.
If a sentence is in the past and has two or more clauses, the ‘when clause’ talks about an action that happened first. However, the ‘when clause’ doesn’t always come at the beginning of the sentence. This means that the placement of the clause within the sentence is not important and does not change the fact that the ‘when clause action’ always happens before the action described in the other clauses.
- When Mary phoned, I was in the shower.
- She was asleep when I knocked on her door.
When we use adverbs such as: always, never, just, still, etc., it’s very important to note their position within a sentence. These adverbs should be placed before the verb.
- I always ate breakfast at 8.
- He just finished his lunch.
Common Words to Talk About the Past
Before we get more deeply into the subject, I want to discuss some common words that are normally used when talking about the past. This means that if we see these words in a sentence, we will automatically know that the sentence is in the past tense.
Here are three words:
- If we have a sentence using the word ‘yesterday‘, we know that we are referring to the past since we are talking about the day before today.
- Yesterday I forgot my phone at Tom’s house.
Using the word ‘last‘ followed by, a day of the week, a month of the year, a year, a season, etc. makes it clear that we are referring to the past. So phrases such as last summer, last November, last week, last Friday, etc. confirm that we are referring to the past.
- Last year, he went to Italy.
- Last year, I graduated from University.
When ‘ago‘ is used in phrases such as an hour ago, five days ago, three years ago, etc, we are very clear that the sentence is referring to a past, finished action.
Forming the Simple Past
Before looking at how the simple past is formed, it’s important to note that the English language has both regular and irregular verbs. In this article, we’re going to be looking at regular verbs. We’ll also look at making affirmative, negative and interrogative sentences using this tense. In this way, you’ll not only get a look at how the verb is conjugated but also at how sentences are formed and the order of words depending on the type of sentence.
First, we’re going to discuss forming affirmative sentences. There are 4 ways. The basic formula is one but there are some spelling variations with certain verbs and we’ll discuss each individually.
1. Usually, when we have a regular verb ending in a consonant and we conjugate it in the simple past, we take the bare infinitive and we add ‘ed’ at the end.
Now, we’ll look at two regular verbs conjugated using the personal pronouns.
- I washed
- you washed
- he washed
- she washed
- it washed
- we washed
- they washed
- I touched
- you touched
- he touched
- she touched
- it touched
- we touched
- they touched
A very important thing to remember is that, as you probably noticed, the ‘ed’ is added to all forms of the subject no matter if it’s first, second or third person or if it’s singular or plural.
Other regular verbs following this rule are:
- and many more
2. When we have a regular verb ending in ’e’, there is going to be a little variation to the rule. What I mean is that there will be a small spelling change to the infinitive of the verb before adding the ‘ed’ ending. Since the verb already ends in an ’e’ all we need to add is a ‘d‘.
Once again, like we mentioned before the verb is conjugated the same for all subjects.
3. If the verb ends in stressed vowel + consonant (except x), we need to double this last consonant before adding the ‘ed’ ending.
- stop = stopped
- beg = begged
- hop = hopped
- jog = jogged
- slam = slammed
- whip = whipped
4. Verbs ending in a consonant + y also undergo a spelling change. The ‘y’ is replaced by an ’i’ followed by the ‘ed’ ending.
- study = studied
- try = tried
- cry = cried
- fly = flied
- marry = married
- spy = spied
- hurry = hurried
Note: If a regular verb ends in a vowel + y, we don’t change the spelling, we simply add ‘ed’ to the infinitive.
- play = played
- enjoy = enjoyed
- obey = obeyed
- stay = stayed
Formula for Forming Affirmative Sentences
- Peter worked very hard this whole week.
- The dog barked non-stop for 3 hours.
- The train arrived 3 hours behind schedule.
When we form the simple past of regular verbs for negative sentences we don’t put the verb in the past by adding ‘ed’ like was the case when we were forming affirmative sentences. In this case, we need to use the negative past of a helping verb. The helping verb used is ‘do’ which in the past negative is ‘did not’ and in the contracted form is ‘didn’t’.
Formula for Forming Negative Sentences
Subject + didn’t + main verb (infinitive) + completing phrase
Once again remember that the conjugation is always the same no matter what the subject is; No change takes place whether we use first or third person, singular or plural.
- She didn’t walk to school.
- He didn’t stop at the traffic light.
Let’s look at some regular verbs conjugated in the negative simple present:
- didn’t ask
- didn’t belong
- didn’t care
- didn’t race
- didn’t smile
- didn’t look
- didn’t need
- didn’t start
- didn’t touch
- didn’t wash
- didn’t live
- didn’t hate
- didn’t beg
- didn’t try
- didn’t cry
- didn’t fly
Before moving on to interrogative sentences I want to address one little matter. Earlier, I mentioned that we use the negative contracted form of the auxiliary verb do. This is the more common way however, it is possible and 100% grammatically correct to use the non-contracted form. So, if you see or hear someone use the long form, be assured that it’s perfectly fine grammatically to do so. In modern English, we usually use the contracted form which makes the sentence flow better but if we want to emphasize the negative then, we use the non-contracted form.
Following are some example sentences in the long form.
- Mary did not play with her friend today.
- He did not stop at the traffic light.
- The dog did not bury the bone, he just left it out in the yard.
If you want to strongly emphasize that something was not done, you use the non-contracted form and it doesn’t sound outdated.
To form interrogative sentences in the simple past, we need to change the order of words within our sentences.
Formula for Forming Questions
- Did Peter finish his homework?
- Did your brother play with the baby?
- Did you study for the test?
- The questions can also be negative ones in which case the formula for simple yes/no questions is:
Formula for Negative Questions
- Didn’t Peter finish his homework?
- Didn’t he cry during the movie?
- Didn’t they study for the test?
Although it is possible to use the non-contracted form, it sounds somewhat awkward and outdated. Besides, using the long form will mean you have to change the order of the sentence.
Although you might not use the long form, I want to show you how it’s formed anyway.
Did + subject + not + main verb in infinitive + completing phrase
- Did Mary not like her dinner?
- Did you not read the sign? (this is an irregular verb but for this verb, it is used if you want to emphasize.)
So, for regular use, it’s a bit strange to ask negative questions this way but it can be used if you want to emphasize what you’re asking and although it may seem strange in some situations, it’s still 100% grammatically correct.
W5 and How Questions
If you want your questions to be more complex and you use the wh or how question words, these would go at the beginning of the sentence.
Formula for Forming Wh Questions
- Why didn’t you stop at the traffic light?
- Where did you park the car?
- Who did he play tennis with?
Well, I think that pretty much covers conjugating regular verbs in the simple past. We’ve seen how the tense is formed for the different type of sentences and also seen sample sentences which I hope will make everything clear to you.
If you have any questions or comments about the simple present tense, please let me know by adding a comment in the section below.
In the next article, we’ll look at irregular verbs and how they are conjugated in the simple past. So, please join me as we continue to explore this fascinating aspect of English grammar.
Till then, keep studying, keep practicing and keep learning this wonderful language.