A Beginner's Guide to the Simple Past in English

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The simple past verb tense is used to speak about things that happened and finished in the recent past. Read the following discussion using the simple past tense:

Robert: Hi Alice, what did you do last weekend?
Alice: I did a lot of things. On Saturday, I went shopping.
Robert: What did you buy?
Alice: I bought some new clothes. I also played tennis.
Robert: Who did you play?
Alice: I played Tom.
Robert: Did you win?
Alice: Of course I won!​
Robert: What did you do after your tennis match?
Alice: Well, I went home and took a shower and then went out.
Robert: Did you eat in a restaurant?
Alice: Yes, my friend Jacky and I ate at The Good Fork.
Robert: Did you enjoy your dinner?
Alice: Yes, we enjoyed our dinner very much. We also drank some wonderful wine!
Robert: Unfortunately, I didn't go out this weekend. I didn't eat in a restaurant, and I didn't play tennis.
Alice: What did you do?​
Robert: I stayed home and studied for my test!
Alice: Poor you!

Which words or phrases told you that this conversation was in the past? The verbs and question forms, of course. The past-tense verbs and question forms in this conversation include:

  • What did you do?
  • I went
  • What did you buy?
  • I bought
  • I played
  • I took
  • I ate
  • We enjoyed
  • We drank
  • I stayed
  • I studied

Time Words

The simple past is used to describe what happened at a specific time in the past using time words such as ago, last, or yesterday.

  • Where did you go yesterday?
  • The flight left last night.
  • They didn't come two weeks ago.

Regular vs. Irregular Verbs

In the positive form, for regular verbs, add an -ed to the verb. But many verbs are irregular. Some of the most common are: go—went, buy—bought, take—took, come—came, have—had, eat—ate, and drink—drank. There are many irregular verbs, so you will need to start learning them now.

  • They arrived late last night. (regular verb)
  • She played tennis yesterday. (regular verb)
  • It sounded difficult to me. (regular verb)
  • I flew to Paris last week. (irregular verb)
  • You bought a new hat yesterday. (irregular verb)
  • He went to the store a few hours ago. (irregular verb)
  • We thought about you. (irregular verb)
  • You came by train last week. (irregular verb)
  • I came back late last night. (irregular verb)

Negative Statements With 'Did'

Use the helping verb did with not (such as in the contraction didn't) plus the verb without any change to make negatives.

  • I didn't understand the question.
  • You didn't fly to San Francisco last week.
  • He didn't want to do the work.
  • She didn't ask any questions in class.
  • It didn't break yesterday.
  • We didn't like the music last night.
  • You didn't buy anything last month.
  • They didn't go to New York last week.

Making Questions With 'Did'

To make yes or no questions, use the helping verb did followed by the subject, then the base form of the verb. For information questions, begin with question words such as "where" or "when."

  • Did we make a reservation?
  • Did you understand the question?
  • Did she want to leave the party?
  • When did you finish the book?
  • Where did he live last year?
  • How much did it cost?
  • What did they say?

Past Simple Quiz

Try this past simple quiz. Use a helping verb when necessary.

1. Tom (buy) a new house last month.
2. When (they/arrive) last week?
3. She (not/understand) the question yesterday.
4. Fred (take) a lot of pictures on his holiday last summer.
5. What (you/get) for your birthday?
6. (they/forget) the bread this morning!
7. Alice (play) tennis this morning.
8. Where (you/go) last weekend?
9. I (want) to buy that computer, but it was too expensive.
10. Why (they/not/come)?
A Beginner's Guide to the Simple Past in English
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A Beginner's Guide to the Simple Past in English
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