All English verbs that are conjugated express a combination of grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical voice, and grammatical mood. Tense is the grammaticalized expression of time. Aspect is the grammaticalized expression of temporal structure or duration. Mood is the expression of modality, which is the expression of possibility, probability, necessity, and contingency. Voice is the expression of relationships between predicate and nominal functions. The simple past typically refers to verbs in the past tense, simple aspect, indicative mood, and active voice.
The simple past can be defined as a verb form that expresses a discrete, completed, noncontinuous action or event in the past. For example, the sentence The monkey ate the banana contains the verb phrase ate, which is an example of the simple past. The use of the simple past in this example indicates that the monkey consumed a banana at a single point in the past.
Formation of the Simple Past
Although the majority of verb forms in English are periphrastic (periphrasis meaning that a “phrase of two or more words that perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word”), the simple past is formed with a single word rather than a phrase of two or more words. Verbs in the simple past are formed either by affixing the -ed suffix to the base form, which is the infinitive without the p-word to, or by following another irregular past tense pattern. The verb phrase patterns for the simple past are as follows:
- first person singular – base(ed), base + irregular change – I delivered the letter.
- second person singular – base(ed), base + irregular change –You broke your arm.
- third person singular – base(ed), base + irregular change – My professor published an article.
- first person plural – base(ed), base + irregular change – We hid the presents.
- second person plural – base(ed), base + irregular change – You destroyed the quilt.
- third person plural – base(ed), base + irregular change – They did the dishes.
Notice that the verb phrase pattern for the simple past is identical in all persons and numbers. For more information on the spelling and pronunciation changes for both regular and irregular English verbs, please refer to Simple Past Tense of Regular English Verbs and Simple Past Tense of Irregular English Verbs.
Use of the Simple Past
Because the simple past expresses discrete actions or states in the past, the verb form most often occurs in sentences that express the following situations:
- Discrete actions or states in the past
- Describe past habits and routines
- State past general facts and truths
- Express past thoughts and feelings
- Express noncontinuous duration in the past
- The puppy wanted a treat.
- The elderly woman swam every morning.
- Dinosaurs roamed the world.
- She loved reading.
- They lived in France for five years.
The following visual illustrates the uses of the simple past of English verbs:
The simple past expresses discrete actions or states in the past.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.