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February 23, 2012 / dlw43

The Simple Past – Verb Tense and Aspect Lesson (Part 3 of 13)

Okay, now that you’ve learned about the Simple Present, it’s time to move on to the Simple Past. (If you haven’t yet learned about the Simple Present, click here.)

Before you learn the Simple Past, make sure you first understand that tense and aspect are different.  By having that understanding in place, it will make it easier for you to understand this and following posts.  (Go here for a quick explanation on the ways in which tense and aspect differ.)

We will be examining each aspect in its present, past, and future tense. In other words, we’ll be discussing each box in the Verb Tense and Aspect Chart in separate posts. Download, print out, and follow along on the Verb Tense and Aspect Chart.

The Simple Past has five main uses: completed action in the past, a series of completed actions, duration in the past, habits in the past, and past facts or generalizations.

Completed Action in the Past:


I saw a movie yesterday. (Affirmative statement)

Did you see a movie yesterday? (Question)

He did not study English last night. (Negative statement)

She ate sushi last night. (Affirmative statement)

Did she attend class yesterday? (Question)

He did not play volleyball on Saturday. (Negative statement)

A Series of Completed Actions:


I went to school, worked out at the gym, and wrote a paper.

I washed the car, walked the dog, and went to the grocery store.

Did you put away the leftovers, rinse the dishes, and start the dishwasher?

Duration in the Past:

Duration can be defined as the the length of time something continues or exists. For instance, the duration of most movies is 90 minutes.


I lived in Japan for three years.

She talked on the phone for two hours.

He studied all day.

They danced all night.

He studied English the entire flight.

He slept during the flight.

Habits in the Past:

An equivalent, perhaps more common, way to express habits in the past is to use the modal verb “used to” + the bare infinitive.  For instance, I used to listen to the news on the radio.  If you use the Simple Past to express a habit in the past, you it is a good idea to clarify your meaning by adding expressions such as always, often, never, usually, when I was a child, etc.  Otherwise, a habit in the past can be mistaken for a completed action in the past.


I studied English when I was a child.

He didn’t play the piano until high school.

She read manga as a child.

She worked at an office after school.

They ate a lot of candy when they were children.

He always monitored the stock market.

By using the Simple Past to indicate a habit in the past, we are saying that this habit stopped in the past. Later, the habit may have begun anew, but the particular habit we indicated with the simple past stopped in the past.

Past Facts or Generalizations:

An equivalent, perhaps more common, way to express habits in the past is to use the modal verb “used to” + the bare infinitive.  For instance, I used to be shy.  This use of the Simple Past is very similar to habits in the past.  The line between a past fact about oneself versus a habit one used to have in the past is hard to distinguish, so these two uses of the Simple Past are quite similar.


Children in Long Beach walked or rode their bikes to school.  (Past Generalization)

Cell phones cost much more in the 1990s. (Past Fact)

Did you live in Tokyo when you were a child? (Past Fact)

He didn’t like sashimi before. (Past fact)

The older generation didn’t use computers. (Past Generalization)

He was shy. (Past Fact)

(If you don’t know the difference between a fact and a generalization, click here.)

Next: The Simple Future


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