Simple Past Tense

Simple Past Tense – Definition and Concept

We have already defined the tense of the verb as the time of occurrence or execution of the verb with respect to the time of making the statement. One of the three tenses of the verb is the Past tense, which is further classified into four types.

The Simple Past tense is that tense of the verb which is used when the verb occurred or generally occurred before the time in which the statement is being made. A few examples below:

  • He preferred tea over coffee.
  • The union met here once every two months.
  • It was always a pleasure to dine with you.

Simple Past tense is used to signify activities that periodically occurred or occurred once before. Thus, verbs expressed in the Simple Past tense are very frequently modified by adverbs of frequency.

At the end of this article, the reader should be able to:

  • Understand the basic idea of Simple Past Tense
  • Understand Subject-Verb agreement for the Simple Past Tense
  • Understand the influence of auxiliaries and modals on Subject-Verb agreement
  • Study Simple Past Tense in the Passive Voice
  • Learn the Negative and Interrogative forms in the Simple Past Tense

Simple Past Tense

As we’ve discussed above, Simple Past Tense is used to describe activities that occurred regularly or occurred before the time of statement. Let us take a few more examples to understand the idea:

  • The board thought that you were
  • I was at the dormitory before.
  • The master visited this place every Tuesday.
  • Did you believe in a higher power?

In each of the examples, we note how the verb shows the state of action or being of the noun or pronoun before the time of the statement or regularly during an earlier frame of time than the statement. The fourth example shows regularity of the verb visited. Thus all of the verbs in these examples are in the Simple Past Tense.

Subject Verb Agreement (Noun-Verb agreement)

In the Simple Present Tense, Subject-Verb agreement is where we learn the general form of the verb for different nouns and pronouns. Since we have three persons (first, second and third) and two numbers (singular and plural) we study the different forms of the verb for all the six combinations:

First Person

  • I was a firm believer of the paranormal. (First person singular)
  • I didn’t generally mix work with pleasure. (First person singular)
  • We broke for lunch and came back in 30 minutes. (First person plural)
  • We predicted a 70% chance of rainfall today. (First person plural)

In each of the examples above, we see that the simple past tense of verbs usually take the past form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural first person pronouns.

First Person Singular form: Pronoun + past form of verb OR

First Person Singular form: Pronoun + modal + root form of verb

First Person Plural form: Pronoun + past form of verb OR

First Person Plural form: Pronoun + modal + root form of verb

Second Person

  • You were a terrible liar.
  • You delivered the package to the bishop.

In each of the examples above, we see that the simple past tense of verbs usually take the past form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural second person pronouns.

Second Person Singular form: Pronoun + past form of verb OR

Second Person Singular form: Pronoun + modal + root form of verb

Second Person Plural form: Pronoun + past form of verb OR

Second Person Plural form: Pronoun + modal + root form of verb

Third Person

Nouns are generally in the third person, while pronouns can be of all persons. So nouns take the same form of the verb as third person pronouns. Examples include:

  • He was a firm believer of the paranormal. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • She didn’t generally mix work with pleasure. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • The Dalai Lama resided in India. (Singular noun)
  • These machines processed 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)

In each of the examples above, we see that the simple past tense of verbs usually take the past form of the verb, which is the root form with suffix ‘–ed’.

Thus, we have the verb forms as:

Third Person Singular form: Noun/Pronoun + past form of the verb OR

Third Person Singular form: Noun/Pronoun + modal + root of verb

Third Person Plural form: Pronoun + past form of verb OR

Third Person Plural form: Pronoun + modal + root form of verb

Auxiliaries and Modals in Simple Present Tense

Auxiliaries and modals have the same function in a sentence: assist the verb. While auxiliaries change with the tense of the verb, modals do not.

Auxiliaries

In the Simple Past Tense, the auxiliary verbs generally act as main verbs and the main verbs do not need an auxiliary (in the active voice). Let us see a few examples where they act as main verbs:

  • I was a consultant at this firm. (First person singular pronoun)
  • We were on our way to the crash site. (First person plural pronoun)
  • You were a terrible liar. (Second person pronoun)
  • He was a firm believer of the paranormal. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • This performance was a treat to watch. (Singular noun)

In the passive voice, they act as auxiliaries. We will learn about passive voice in the next section.

Modals [1]

Modals however can be used to enhance the meaning of the verb. Let us take a few examples:

  • He suffered from a unique form of dyslexia. (Third person singular; Root form suffer)
  • Robin played second fiddle to the Batman. (Singular Noun; Root form play)
  • You were a terrible liar. (Second person pronoun; Root form be)
  • I was a consultant at this firm. (First person singular pronoun; Root form be)

An addition of a modal causes the verb to be reduced from past form to root form. Observe the effect of a modal on the statements above:

  • He could suffer from a unique form of dyslexia. (Third person singular; Root form suffer)
  • Robin could play second fiddle to the Batman. (Singular Noun; Root form play)
  • You could be a terrible liar. (Second person pronoun; Root form be)
  • I could be a consultant at this firm. (First person singular pronoun; Root form be)

The verbs are reduced to their root forms by the modal. . Hence we have different rules for Simple Past tense with the inclusion of modals. We study the Passive Voice in the next section.

Simple Past Tense in Passive Voice

A sentence or a verb is in active voice when the subject is the executioner of the verb, while passive voice is when the subject is the recipient of the verb. With a change in voice, all pronouns and nouns take different forms of the verb. We explore that in this section.

From every type of person and number, we pick one example each from the previous sections.

First Person

  • Active: I didn’t generally mix work and pleasure. (First person singular)
  • Passive: Work and pleasure wasn’t generally mixed by me.
  • Active: We predicted a 70% chance of rainfall today. (First person plural)
  • Passive: A 70% chance of rainfall was predicted (by us)

Second Person

  • Active: You delivered the package to the bishop.
  • Passive: The package was delivered (by you) to the bishop.

Third Person

  • Active: He brought the whole house down today. (Third person plural pronoun)
  • Passive: The whole house was brought down (by him)
  • Active: These machines presently processed 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)
  • Passive: 35 bottles were processed by these machines per minute.

We make the following observations:

  • The primary verb takes the past participle form in the passive voice.
  • The past form of the auxiliary verb is always added to the verb.
  • The number of the object/predicate (not the subject) influences the auxiliary verb in passive form.
  • For all number and person of the noun or pronoun, the formation is the same.

Thus the formation of the passive form of a verb in the simple past tense would be

For all nouns/pronouns:

Noun/Pronoun + (modal) + Past form of Auxiliary + Past Participle form of Verb

Interrogative Sentences in the Simple Past Tense

Here, we study the rearrangement of words of a sentence with a change in type to interrogative sentences. Let us begin with an example from the previous sections:

  • He preferred tea over coffee.
  • The union met here once every two months.
  • It was always a pleasure to dine with her.
  • I broke the porch swing yesterday.
  • He could suffer from a unique form of dyslexia.
  • Robin could play second fiddle to the Batman.

The above sentences make a regular statement or what we call assert. Hence these are examples of assertive sentences. Let us now put these into the interrogative form:

  • Did he prefer tea over coffee?
  • Did the union meet here once every two months?
  • Was it always a pleasure to dine with her?
  • Did I break the porch swing yesterday?
  • Could he suffer from a unique form of dyslexia?
  • Could Robin play second fiddle to the Batman?

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • Sentences with no modal verbs use did to begin the interrogative form for all subjects.
  • Sentences with modal verbs use the modal verb to begin the interrogative form for all subjects.
  • Sentences with past form of the main verb ‘be’ is used to begin the interrogative forms for all subjects.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Sentences without modal verbs:
    Did + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Root form of the verb
  • Sentences with Present form of main verb be:

Was/Were + Subject Noun/Pronoun

  • Sentences with modal verbs:

Modal + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Root form of the verb

Negative Sentences in the Simple Past Tense

What happens when we change the form of assertive sentences from positive to negative form?

Let us take the examples above again:

  • He preferred tea over coffee.
  • The union met here once every two months.
  • It was always a pleasure to dine with you.
  • He might suffer from a unique form of dyslexia.
  • Robin could play second fiddle to the Batman.
  • I broke the porch swing yesterday.

When we convert them into the negative form, we get:

  • He did not prefer tea over coffee.
  • The union did not meet here once every two months.
  • It was not always a pleasure to dine with you.
  • He might not suffer from a unique form of dyslexia.
  • Robin could not play second fiddle to the Batman.
  • I did not break the porch swing yesterday.

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • Sentences with no modal verbs use did to begin the negative form for all subjects.
  • Sentences with modal verbs use the modal verb to begin the negative form for all subjects.
  • Sentences with past form of the main verb ‘be’ is used to begin the negative forms for all subjects.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Sentences without modal verbs:
    Subject Noun/Pronoun + did + not + Root form of the verb
  • Sentences with Present form of main verb be:

Subject Noun/Pronoun + was/were + not

  • Sentences with modal verbs:

Subject Noun/Pronoun + modal + not + Root form of the verb

Conclusion

This concludes the discussion on the Simple Past Tense.

Notes

 [1] The use of modals on verbs in the Past Tenses creates confusion about the tense of the sentence. Note the examples in the discussion on modals. The addition of a modal reduces the verb from past form to root form and thus the sentence resembles their present tense equivalent.

This means that the sentence takes the Simple Present form (with modal) if initially expressed in Simple Past form (without modal), Present Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Continuous form (without modal), Present Perfect form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect form (without modal), and Present Perfect Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect Continuous form (without modal).

Readers can verify the above statement by comparing the section on modals of the articles on the corresponding forms of Present and Past Tense, especially the examples of sentences after the implementation of modals.

Thus in situations like these, the role of adverbs becomes quite important, as they are the determiner of the tense of these sentences. Sometimes, even after the use of adverbs, the tense of the sentence is left ambiguous. In that case, irrespective of the form of the sentence before the inclusion of modals, we identify these sentences as being in the Present Tense. The sub-type of the Present Tense can thereafter be determined by the conventional methods discussed in the articles on Present Tense.