Simple Past Tense: Definition and Examples

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Simple past tense verbs—also called past simple or preterite—show action that occurred and was completed at a particular time in the past. The simple past tense of regular verbs is marked by the ending -d or -ed. Irregular verbs have a variety of endings. The simple past is not accompanied by helping verbs. "The simple past tense is often used with an adverbial phrase that specifies a time in the past, such as yesterday, last year, (or) an hour ago," according to "Complete English Grammar Rules."

An example of a simple past tense verb used in a sentence would be: "I went to the park." The speaker completed her action of going to the park, so you use the verb "go" in the simple past tense. Note how this example uses an irregular verb but in the past simple, which can be a bit confusing until you understand the rules for using these verbs.

Regular Verbs

As with any subject in English grammar, it's easiest to start with regular verbs. A good example sentence—from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"—would be: "The four travelers passed a sleepless night, each thinking of the gift Oz had promised to bestow on him." The present tense of the verb is "pass." You know it's a regular verb because you simply add "ed" to form the past tense.

Other examples of regular simple past tense verbs used in a sentence are:

  • solved the puzzle.
  • He dumped the garbage.

In the first sentence, you simply add a "d" to "solve" to get the past tense of the verb.

The second example is just as easy: Simply add "ed" to "dump" to form the simple past tense.



I dumped.

We dumped.

You dumped.

You dumped.

He/She/It dumped.

They dumped.

In the case of "It dumped," presumably a monster—or Cousin Itt—dumped something somewhere at some specific time in the past.

"To Be" Verbs

The "to be" verbs—such as "is" and "am"—are all irregular verbs. Indeed, "to be" verbs are the only verbs in English that change form in every tense. Fortunately, the past simple for "to be" verbs is fairly easy, as the following table shows:



I was.

We were.

You were.

You were.

He/She/It was.

They were.

Note that the past singular requires "was" for the first and third person, while "were" is used with a second-person pronoun. All forms are the same—"were"—for the plural tenses.

Irregular Verbs

Irregular verbs can be a bit tricky in the past tense, but they don't have to be if you familiarize yourself with them., a website that provides video-based academic courses, offers this table listing some of the verbs that are irregular in the past tense.


There is no easy way to learn how to conjugate irregular verbs in the past tense: You simply have to memorize them. The following table illustrates how to conjugate "sweep" in the simple past tense.



I swept.

We swept.

You swept.

You swept.

He/She/It swept.

They swept.

To form the simple past of this irregular verb, you remove the second "e" from "sweep" and add a "t." Note that though the verb is irregular, it conjugates exactly the same way—"swept"—in the first, second, or third person as well as in the singular and plural forms.

This is the case for all irregular verbs in the past simple tense. Once you know the spelling of the irregular verb in the simple past tense, you can relax because it is the same for the first, second, and third person as well as in the singular and plural forms.

Questions, Negative Statements, and Negative Questions

A few other instances of simple past tense verbs deserve some discussion. Often, you form questions in the simple past tense by starting the sentence with an irregular verb coupled with a present tense verb somewhere in the sentence. An example would be: "Did you go to the store yesterday?" Note how you use "did," the past tense of the irregular verb "do," to start the sentence together with the present tense of the verb "go" later in the question. Other examples would be:

  • What did you do?
  • Where did you go?
  • You did what?

The last sentence uses the past tense of the verb "do" without the assistance of another verb. To create negative statements in the simple past tense, you often insert the past tense of the word "do" together with the word "not" in front of a present tense verb, as in:

  • The research study did not conclude that longer school days lead to greater student achievement.
  • didn't wait for Charlie to finish complaining about his cell phone.
  • I did not hear my grandfather singing in the shower.

To form negative questions, you often start the sentence with "did not" or "didn't" coupled with a present or past tense verb, such as:

  • Didn't you look before crossing the street?
  • Did you not realize the school was closed?
  • Why didn't you do your homework last night?

Once you master the rules for creating the simple past tense, you'll be ready to move on to other forms of past tense verbs in English.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Simple Past Tense: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 13, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 13). Simple Past Tense: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Simple Past Tense: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2018).