A student asked me to discuss verb usage in the past tense, so here it is.
In English grammar, you should already know that a verb has six tenses: present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect. This lesson will focus on the past tense.
- To learn when the past tense should be used.
- To learn how to form the past tense of a regular verb.
- To learn the different forms of the past tense (simple, continuous/progressive).
- To learn how to form past tense in the active and passive voices.
- To learn how to pronounce the “-ed” ending on past tense verbs (three different pronunciation patterns).
In our current state of technology, we consider that there is only one ‘past’, so we always call it “the past”. The simplest definition for the past is anytime before right now, before this very second in time. For example, the past may be two seconds ago, two hours ago, two years ago, or two million years ago. Since the beginning of the universe, we have accumulated about five billion years of “past” time, and the past is continuously growing in size as every second of time passes by.
- To describe completed action in the past.- Yesterday, I talked to him on the phone.
– Last year I traveled to China.
– A few months ago, I turned 61 years old.
- To describe a series of completed actions in the past.- I finished work, walked to the beach, and went for a swim.
– He arrived at 8:00, checked into the hotel, and unpacked his bags in his room.
– I saw that movie three times last year. It was awesome!
- To express duration in the past.- I lived in China for four months last year.
– In college I studied the Chinese language for one year.
– He talked on the phone the entire time the professor was lecturing.
- To describe habits in the past.- I studied French when I was a child.
– He played the violin.
– He didn’t play the piano.
– Did you play a musical instrument when you were a kid?
– She worked at the movie theater after school.
– They never went to school; they always skipped class.
- To express past facts or generalizations.- She was shy as a child, but now she is very outgoing.
– He didn’t like tomatoes when he was a boy, but now he loves them!
– I lived in Alabama when I was a kid.
– Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head one day.
– People used to have to pay a dime to make a phone call in a phone booth.
(The expression “used to” refers to a fact that was true in the past
but is no longer true in the present.)
- To be polite in phrasing certain requests- Could I ask you a question? (‘could’ is past tense of ‘can’)
– Would you help me, please? (‘would’ is past tense of ‘will’)
– I was wondering what the price of this is. (=> “Please tell me the price of this.”)
- To describe unreal or hypothetical situations- If I were you, I would ask her out for a date.
– If it rained so much yesterday, then why is everything so dry today?
How do I form the past tense of a verb?
For the purposes of forming the past tense, we divide verbs into two types: regular and irregular. Regular verbs form the past tense in a standard way–by adding “ed” to the end of the bare infinitive (the verb without the “to” in front). Some examples of regular verbs are as follows:
- “to talk” => talk + “ed” => talked
- “to count” => count + “ed” => counted
- “to touch” => touch + “ed” => touched
Spelling rules will sometimes modify the verb ending to accommodate adding the “ed”. Some example of verb ending changes are as follows:
- rally => rallied (‘y’ changes to an ‘i’)
- repel => repelled (the final consonant is doubled)
- love => loved (the final ‘e’ is dropped when ‘ed’ is added to avoid ‘eed’)
- Other spelling rules may apply.
Irregular verbs form the past tense in a nonstandard way. There is no single pattern for this. Unfortunately for English learners, English has a lot of irregular verbs. Some examples of irregular verbs are as follows:
- take => took
- teach => taught
- buy => bought
- see => saw
- do => did
- is => was
- have => had
- go => went
- seek => sought
- make => made
- know => knew
- Many, many other verbs…
What are the two forms of the past tense?
There are two forms of the past tense: simple and continuous (or progressive). We have been discussing the simple form above. The continuous form expresses a longer-duration action that was in progress at some time in the past. The continuous form is formed as follows:
- [was/were + present participle (-ing)]
- Note: For negative simple past tense, we must use “did not (bare infinitive)”
(he did not see; he did not do; he did not seek)
(In this case, the “did” takes the past tense instead of the main verb.)
- You were studying when she called.
- Were you studying when she called?
- You were not studying when she called.
- What were you thinking when you hit him?
What are the uses of the continuous past tense?
- To describe a longer action in the past that was interrupted by a shorter action.- I was watching TV when she called.
– When the phone rang, she was writing a letter.
– While we were having the picnic, it started to rain.
- To describe a longer action in the past that was interrupted by a point in time.- Last night at 6:00 pm, I was eating dinner.
– At midnight, we were still driving through the desert.
– Yesterday at this time, I was sitting at my desk at work.
- To express concurrent actions (happening at the same time).
(Concurrent actions often use the adverb ‘while’.)- I was studying while he was making dinner.
– While Ellen was reading, Tim was watching television.
- To describe the atmosphere or surroundings in the past.- When I walked into the office, people were busy typing and talking.
– One customer was yelling at a secretary and waving his hands.
– Others were complaining to each other about the bad service.
- To express repetition and irritation in the past.
(These expressions typically use ‘always’ or ‘constantly’ to indicate non-stop action.)- She was always coming to class late.
– He was constantly talking. He annoyed everyone.
– I didn’t like them because they were always complaining.
How is the past tense different between active and passive voices?
In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. Active voice uses the simple past tense and continuous past tense forms we have previously discussed.
– He repaired the car.
– She filled out the form.
– The crowd threw stones at the man.
In passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb. Passive voice requires a form of the verb “to be” and is formed as follows:
- Simple past tense, passive voice: was/were + simple past tense
- Continuous past tense, passive voice: was/were + being + simple past tense
– The car was repaired by him.
– The form was filled out by her.
– Stones were being thrown at the man by the crowd.
There are three different sounds used to say the ‘-ed’ sound at the end of regular verbs in the past tense. I will represent these three sounds like this:
- /t/ – sounds like t’ (sounds like the ‘t’ in ‘it’)
- /d/ – sounds like duh (rhymes with the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’)
- /id/ – sounds like id (rhymes with ‘did’)
Which sound you use depends on the final sound of the verb’s bare infinitive.
- If the final sound is “voiced”, then the final ‘-ed’ sound will be /t/.
- If the final sound is “unvoiced”, then the final ‘-ed’ sound will be /d/.
- If the final sound is /t/ or /d/, then the final ‘-ed’ sound will be /id/.
Let’s look at some examples:
Voiced Ending (/p/, /f/, /s/, /k/, /S/, /Ts/)
- peep => peeped => peep/t/
- laugh => laughed => laugh/t/
- kiss => kissed => kiss/t/
- hope => hoped => hope/t/
- kick => kicked => kick/t/
- match => matched => match/t/
Unvoiced Ending (all other sounds except for voiced endings above)
- learn => learn => learn/d/
- play => played => play/d/
- bribe => bribed => bribe/d/
- deem => deemed => deem/d/
- stir => stirred => stir/d/
Ending Sound Is Already /t/ or /d/
- sound => sounded => sound/id/
- want => wanted => want/id/
- blend => blended => blend/id/
- paint => painted => paint/id/
- wound => wounded => wound/id/
Fill in the blanks with the correct verb forms:
Active Voice, Simple Past Tense
- Teacher Lee _____ this lesson for his students. (to write)
- In September of 2001, terrorists _____ the New York World Trade Center. (to attack)
- On July 20, 1969, the United States _____ a man on the moon. (to land)
- I _____ that movie twice last year. (to see)
- The teacher _____ that lesson yesterday. (to teach) You _____ it. (to miss)
- How many _____ last week. (you, to buy)
- When the door bell _____ (to ring), my dog _____ (to bark).
- If I _____ you (to be), I would have retired already.
- He _____ (to keep) us very busy when he ____ (to be) two years old.
- Christopher Columbus _____ America in 1492. (to discover)
- _____ me, please? (you, will, to help)
- _____ stop and buy some bread when you come home from work? (you, can, to buy)
Active Voice, Continuous Past Tense
- Teacher Lee _____ (to drink) coffee as he _____ (to write) this lesson.
- In September of 2001, as the terrorists _____ (to attack) the New York World Trade Center, Americans _____ it all on TV, shocked by the cruelty of the attackers.
- I _____ (to walk) in the park when I saw that a strange man _____ (to look) at me.
- The lawyer asked, “What _____ (you, to do) at midnight on January 1st?”
- Where _____ in such a hurry when I saw you yesterday? (you, to go)
- He _____ (to wear; in progress) glasses while he _____ (to read; in progress) the newspaper.
- She _____ (to sing; in progress) while she _____ (to make) up her face.
- One thing I ____ (simple past tense; to not like) about her was that she _____ (always; to poke) her nose in other people’s business.
Passive Voice, Simple Past Tense
- When my friend visited, dinner _____ (already; to finish).
- Yesterday the sun _____ (to block) by the clouds all day. What a lousy day!
- The last bottle of milk _____ (to drink) yesterday.
- The bus engine _____ (to start) a few minutes ago. We’re about ready to leave.
- That game _____ (to cancel) last night at the last minute.
Passive Voice, Continuous Past Tense
- As the witness _____ (to question), he appeared nervous.
- As the songs _____ (to play), the audience was swaying to the music.
- As the ball _____ (to throw), the batter was waiting anxiously.
- As the news _____ (to deliver), the listeners made unpleasant faces.
- When he came to visit, dinner _____ (already; to serve).
- List one irregular verb whose past tense always gives you trouble.
- Tell me at least one thing you learned from this lesson.