Passed vs. Past: How to Choose the Right Word

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

passed and past

Neyya/Getty Images

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 homonyms, words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning

How to Use Passed

The word "passed" means to move on, move ahead, take place, go beyond, go across, decline, win approval, and 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, and 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, 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 by Alice Munro, in the story "Meneseteung" published in her book, "Friend of My Youth":

"At her residence on Tuesday last, between three and four o'clock in the afternoon, there passed away a lady of talent and refinement whose pen, in days gone by, enriched our local literature with a volume of sensitive, eloquent verse."

Pass(ed) the hat (around): The idiom pass(ed) the hat (around) means to collect donations of money from a group of people. E.A. Heaman used the term as such in "St. Mary's: The History of a London Teaching Hospital":

"When it became evident that Moran's grandiose plans had actually borne fruit, Wright casually passed the hat around his sponsors and built the Pathological Institute as one wing of the new school building."

Pass(ed) out: The phrasal verb pass(ed) out means to faint or lose consciousness. Author and poet Maya Angelou used this phrasal verb in "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes":

"He, the host of the motor trip and the owner of the car, had passed out on the back seat leaving Guy behind the steering wheel trying to start the stalled engine."

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. Jeffrey K. Johnson, in his essay, "This Isn't Your Grandfather's Comic Book Universe: The Return of the Golden Age Superman" published in "The Ages of Superman" showed how to use the phrase:

"The Golden Age Superman is the grandfatherly figure who now embraces his role as symbolic figurehead. Clearly past his prime and no longer in touch with the current society's needs, he no longer attempts to lead or dictate change; instead he serves as the symbol of a bygone era."

Sources