For Beginners: Understanding the Past Simple

Learn how to use the past simple in English

Having a discussion
Telling a Story in the Past. Westend61 / Getty Images

The simple past is used to speak about things that happened in the 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 thank you. 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! The verbs and question forms in the past in this conversation include:

What did you do?
I went 
What did you buy?
I bought
I played

Take a look at the following conjugation chart. Notice from the above dialogue and following chart that 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.     

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

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)
She played tennis yesterday.(regular verb)
It sounded difficult to me. (regular verb)
We thought about you.(irregular verb)
You came by train last week.(irregular verb)
The arrived late last night. (regular verb)
came back late last night. (irregular verb)

Use the helping verb 'did' not (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.

Use the helping verb 'did' subject the base form of the verb in yes / no questions. For information questions, begin with question words such as 'where' or 'when'.

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

Try this past simple quiz.

Past Simple Quiz

  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)?


  1. Tom bought a new house last month.
  2. When did they arrive last week?
  3. She didn't understand the question yesterday.
  4. Fred took a lot of pictures on his holiday last summer.
  5. What did you get for your birthday?
  6. They forgot the bread this morning.
  7. Alice played tennis this morning.
  8. Where did you go last weekend?
  9. I wanted to buy that computer, but it was too expensive.
  10. Why didn't they come?

The past simple is often confused with the present perfect.

Make sure you know the difference between these two forms.