Passed vs. Past: How to Choose the Right Word

Both derive from the same verb, but their meanings and uses differ

passed and past

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The words "passed" and "past" both come from the verb "to pass." Originally, in fact, they were the same word—but that's no longer true. Over time, their uses diverged, and the two words are now far from interchangeable, despite how similar they may seem. "Passed" and "past" are also homophones, words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning and spelling. 

How to Use "Passed"

The word "passed" means to move on, move ahead, take place, go beyond, go across, decline, win approval, or complete successfully. "Passed" is both the past and past participle form of the verb "pass." It can function either as a transitive verb, meaning it takes a direct object, or an intransitive verb, which does not take a direct object.

How to Use "Past"

"Past" usually means belonging to a former time or beyond a time or place. "Past" has many functions. It can be a noun (meaning a previous time), an adjective (meaning ago), and a preposition (meaning beyond). "Past" can also be an adverb, which is a part of speech (or word class) that's primarily used to modify a verb, adjective, or other adverbs.

Examples

Differentiating between "passed" and "past" allows us to either talk about the "past" (or previous time) more precisely or to use a verb, "passed," indicating some kind of movement. Consider the following examples to deepen your understanding of the distinction between the two terms: 

  • The past two weeks have been hard for Sally. She has not passed any of her exams. In the first sentence, "past" serves as an adjective, modifying the word "weeks." By contrast, in the second sentence, "passed" is used as the past participle form of the verb "pass."
  • When she walked past me, I told her to forget the past and look toward the future. These sentences show how flexible the word "past" can be. In the first sentence, "past" functions as an adverb, modifying the verb "walked," meaning that she walked "beyond" me. In the second sentence, "past" is a noun, meaning a previous time.
  • "Passed" can also serve as the simple past tense of the verb "pass," as in this example: We passed several children having fun on the playground.
  • "Past" can be an adjective, modifying a person or idea, as in, "Our past president spoke until past 10 p.m." In the first sentence, "past" is an adjective modifying "president," while in the second sentence, "past" modifies the time, "10 p.m."

How to Remember the Difference 

Remember that "passed" describes an action, while "past" describes a time or space. There are a few memory tricks to help you determine which word is correct. The word "past" describes a previous space or time, so remember that the last two letters of "past" are "s" and "t" standing for "space" or "time."

When it comes to recognizing when to use the word "passed," Spellzone suggests that you imagine two people with names beginning with "s" passing something to each other: Sarah passed Sally the salt. Spellzone also suggests putting your sentence into the present tense. "If the word ‘pass’ (or ‘passes’) works in the new sentence it means you need to use 'passed,'" says Spellzone. So you might have:

  • Sarah passed the salt to Sue.

Putting the sentence into the present tense would yield:

  • Sarah passes the salt to Sue.

You could never say, "Sarah past the salt to Sue."

Idiom Alerts

Sometimes, "passed" or "past" is used as an idiom, a set expression of two or more words that means something other than the literal meanings of its individual words.

Pass(ed) away: The phrasal verb "pass(ed) away" is a euphemism for die or died, as in this example:

  • Thousands attended his funeral after George "passed away."

Pass(ed) the hat (around): The idiom "pass(ed) the hat (around)" means to collect donations of money from a group of people. This sentence uses the idiom as such:

  • At the community meeting, we "passed the hat around" to raise funds for the new church.

Pass(ed) out: The phrasal verb "pass(ed) out" means to faint or lose consciousness. These sentences make the point:

  • He was so inebriated that he "passed out" in the park after drinking all night.
  • He ran a 10-mile marathon and then "passed out" due to exhaustion at the finish line.
  • She had a slight heart murmur and "passed out" because of it.
  • After her daughter and son-in-law announced they were having a baby, the mother "passed out" from joy.
  • As he placed the engagement ring on her finger, she "passed out" from shock.
  • The accident was so bad that as she "passed by," she "passed out."

Note how the last sentence uses both the idiom "passed out" as well as the verb "passed by" meaning to move beyond or to walk past.

Past your prime: The expression "past one's prime" means no longer in good health or no longer as good at something as one used to be. These examples show some uses of the phrase:

  • The professor was once capable and respected, but by the 1990s he was "past his prime."
  • Many star athletes stay in the game too long—well after they are "past their prime."

Sources

  • Brians, Paul. Washington State University. Common Errors in English Usage and More Han Feitzu d 233 BCE Legalist Views on Good Government Comments, brians.wsu.edu/2016/05/30/passed-past/.
  • Football in the USA, homepage.smc.edu/quizzes/cheney_joyce/PassedorPast.html.
  • Voice: Active and Passive, webapps.towson.edu/ows/past.htm.