Simple past

- The simple past is used to describe an action that has already been completed in the past. It may refer to the recent past or to the very distant past.

Using the simple past
A completed action in the past (or series of completed actions in the past). I walked the dog last night.
I ran five miles, then I showered, and afterwards, I went to work.
A finished period of time in the past. I lived in France for three years.
I worked at the Embassy for three months.
Past generalizations that are no longer the same. Cars were less fuel efficient in the 80’s.
Pip was a shy child.
Past habits (that have since changed). I played basketball in high school.
I trained to be a ballerina in my twenties.

- Rules for conjugating simple past:

  • Base verb + -ed
  • Common irregular verbs include: speak (à spoke), make (à made), take (à took), etc. It’s best to memorize the irregular verbs.
Verb Past simple Passive voice
Call Called Was called
Pay Paid Was paid
See Saw Was seen
Finish Finished Was finished

- Examples of the simple past tense:

I called the hotel yesterday.
I saw the play last week; it was great!
The company was sold to the highest bidder.
Lacy ran three marathons last year.

- Irregular verbs

Draw à drew Fly à flew Catch à caught Cut à cut
Make à made Hold à held Fight à fought Give à gave
Meet à met Say à said Sing à sang Tell à told
Write à wrote Sell à sold Spend à spent Sleep à slept

-The past continuous, also called the past progressive, describes an action or event that began in the past and is still ongoing. The action wasn’t completed in the past (like with the simple past).

Using the past continuous
To describe an action that was interrupted by a shorter action. I was sleeping when the alarm went off.
I was concentrating until my phone rang.
Expressing a change of mind. I was going to start school, but I decided to travel for the year instead.
To provide background information or description. The birds were chirping.
The sun was shining.
A specific time stated during the course of a past action or event*. At 3pm I was giving an important presentation at work.

* A sentence in the simple past tense, includes a specific time that indicates the start or end of the action (ex: “At 8am I ran five miles,” instead of, “At 8am I was running five miles”). In the second example, 8am interrupts the run, which had already started.

- Rules for conjugating past continuous:

  • Was/were (the past simple of "to be") + present participle of main verb
Verb I/she/he You/we/they
Sing Was singing Were singing
Call Was calling Were calling
Ask Was asking Were asking
Write Was writing Were writing

- Examples:

Catherine was speaking to her mother when the phone ran out of battery.
The ocean waves were crashing along the shore.
I called you at 8pm last night, what were you doing?
At 8pm I was eating dinner with my girlfriend.
I was thinking about eating pizza for dinner, but I want to be healthier this year. I ate a salad instead.

The simple past is used to describe actions started in the past and have also been completed in the past. There are many specific words and phrases that require the simple past — see examples on the chart below.

Yesterday Last night One year ago
The day before yesterday Many years ago In the past
At that time The other day A long time ago
A short time ago Yesterday afternoon Recently
(specific dates) The month before last The week before last
Last year, I went to China.
The week before last, she and I went out to dinner.
I was born on May 1st, 1989.