past tense (simple past)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In English grammar, the simple past is a verb tense (the second principal part of a verb) indicating action that occurred in the past and which does not extend into the present.

The simple past tense (also known as the past simple or preterite) of regular verbs is marked by the ending -d, -ed, or -t. Irregular verbs have a variety of endings. The simple past is not accompanied by helping verbs.

Examples and Observations

  • "The four travelers passed a sleepless night, each thinking of the gift Oz had promised to bestow on him." (L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900)
  • "And the Scarecrow found a tree full of nuts and filled Dorothy's basket with them, so that she would not be hungry for a long time. She thought this was very kind and thoughtful of the Scarecrow, but she laughed heartily at the awkward way in which the poor creature picked up the nuts." (L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900)
  • "Dorothy . . . drew a small silver whistle from her pocket and blew a shrill note upon it." (L. Frank Baum, Tik-Tok of Oz, 1914)
  • "I dreamed a thousand new paths. I woke and walked my old one." (Chinese proverb)
  • "I walked among fabulous machines as small as schnauzers and as huge as elephants, all gleaming in the August sun. Drive belts whirred, flywheels revolved, pistons fired, and a forest of smokestacks piped foul smoke and rude music into the otherwise cloudless sky." (Donovan Hohn, "A Romance of Rust." Harper's, January 2005)
  • "Last year I saw three migrating Canada geese flying low over the frozen duck pond where I stood. I heard a heart-stopping blast of speed before I saw them; I felt the flayed air slap at my face. They thundered across the pond, and back, and back again: I swear I have never seen such speed, such such single-mindedness, such flailing of wings." (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper, 1972)

    Functions of the Simple Past Tense

    • "The past tense includes any action or state of being that we could find between the dawn of time and a split second before the present." (Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Books, 2004)
    • "Generally [the simple past] tense refers to events, habitual activities, and states in the past: I talked to my brother this morning; The Normans conquered England in 1066; He went to London every day; It contained sugar. In the 'sequence of tenses' rule in reported speech, it restates the present tense of the original utterance: 'He likes chocolate' as reported in She said he liked chocolate." (Frank R. Palmer and Sidney Greenbaum, "Tense." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. by Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1992)

      Use of the Simple Past to Describe Habitual Activities

      "The past simple can also be used with a habitual sense, to refer to a series of past events that occurred on a regular basis. Often, when used in this way, the verb is accompanied by an adverbial that underscores the regularity of the situation described:

      a. Every morning, I walked to the office, no matter the weather.
      b. My mother always went to the fish market on Mondays.
      c. Whenever I played football I would injure myself.

      The habitual meaning expressed here by means of the past simple can also be expressed with an alternative grammatical pattern. This involves a special habitual form, used to, plus an infinitive verb. Each of the examples in (47) can be rephrased using this pattern without change of meaning:

      a. Every morning, I used to walk to the office, no matter the weather.
      b. My mother always used to go to the fish market on Mondays.
      c. Whenever I used to play football I would injure myself.

      (Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Information Age, 2010)

      The Lighter Side of the Past Tense

      "Daisy looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and said, 'I honestly don't know why I married you. I suppose I must have loved you.'

      "'Loved?' I queried. 'Did you mean to use the past tense?'

      "Daisy went mad again, shouting, 'Our marriage is breaking up and all you can do is talk about my grammar.'

      "'That's grossly contrapositional of what I actually said,' I protested."

      (Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. Penguin, 2010)

      Also Known As: preterite, simple past, past simple

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "past tense (simple past)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 25). past tense (simple past). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "past tense (simple past)." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 20, 2018).