When to Use the Simple Past
  • 5-minute read
  • 6th June 2023

When to Use the Simple Past

Every English student has issues with English grammar tenses. If you’d like to know when exactly you should use the simple past in English, we’ve got a post for you! By the end of the post, you’ll be more confident in your ability to use it correctly. 

 What Is the Simple Past?

It’s pretty straightforward. The simple past is the verb that describes events or actions that occurred before the present. These are completed actions that happen only one time. For the sake of the post, we won’t go into how to form the simple past; however, we’ll provide two examples of it in context:

Example: I went fishing last weekend.

Example: Luke talked to Jodie after school.

As you can see, the simple past uses the Subject + Verb + Object formula. Most verbs are changed to -ed in the simple past; however, things get tricky when conjugating irregular verbs. Once you know the rules regarding irregular verbs, you won’t have difficulty changing verbs into their past form. Like all English tenses, the subject must agree with the verb. This shouldn’t be an issue if you know how to conjugate verbs with their subject pronouns.

When Do We Use the Simple Past?

We use the simple past to describe a completed action, an action in the past, or multiple past actions. The simple past can also describe a past feeling, such as how someone felt about a particular thing.

 Although the rules seem straightforward, they often confuse English language learners. We’ll explain each use with examples followed by concept-checking questions to simplify this.

To Describe a Completed Action

The completed action can occur once or multiple times. The most important thing to remember is that the action has stopped and doesn’t continue. Let’s take this example:

I woke up at 6:30 this morning.

Does the action occur one time? (Yes). Do we know what time the person woke up? (Yes). Is the person still asleep? (No).

 Because we know that the action doesn’t continue in the present, English students usually have no trouble with completed actions, especially when there is a time reference to indicate when exactly the action happened.

 When describing completed actions, we often use signal words to employ the simple past. These words make it clear that the action happened at a specific point in time. Signal words include the following:

·   Last night

·   In 2004

·   A week ago

·   Yesterday

Signal words can come at the beginning or end of a sentence. Consider these examples:

Yesterday, I went to the lake.

I saw Tom a month ago.

To Describe an Action in the Past

You can use the simple past to describe an action that interrupts another action in the past. This often confuses learners because there are two past actions: the simple past and the past continuous. Students don’t know which action happens first, and sometimes they incorrectly use the simple past action as the past continuous. To illustrate, we’ll consider this example:

Stephanie lost a flip-flop while she was going up a flight of stairs.

Concept questions are a great tool to help demonstrate understanding. They can break down the sentence and look at it one step at a time. Let’s try a few:

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1. Which action happens first? Stephanie losing her flip-flop or going up the stairs? (Going up the stairs)

2. When Stephanie lost her flip-flop, did she continue going up the stairs? (No)

We now know that Stephanie started going up a flight of stairs, then while she was going up, she lost a flip-flop. The was going is in the past continuous because it was continuously happening until Stephanie lost one of her shoes. The important thing is that after she lost her flip-flop, the climbing action stops. Moreover, the sentence can be written with the past continuous first. In other words, we can say, “While Stephanie was climbing up a flight of stairs, she lost a flip-flop.”

Describing Multiple Past Actions

The simple past can be used to describe multiple actions in sequential order. All of the actions are in the simple past, so the main thing to be aware of is that we’re describing a series of completed past actions. Let’s look at the following example:

Mark packed his lunch, put on his jacket, and then left for work.

As we can see, all the actions are in the simple past and occur once. However, we need visual confirmation that we understand the concept:

1. Did Mark do all the actions at the same time? (No)

2. Which action happens first? (Mark packing his lunch)

3. Which action happens last? (Mark leaving for work)

English students typically understand the simple past function in this context. They only need to remember that the actions don’t happen simultaneously.


 Let’s recap what we’ve learned:

●  The simple past describes completed actions in the past.

●  It can be used to describe an action that stops another past action that was in progress (Stephanie’s flip-flop).

●  It can describe a series of completed events.

●  It uses signal words or time references to indicate when the action happened.

●  Most verb endings are changed to -ed to make them in the past form; however, this is not the case with irregular verbs.

Hopefully, you’re now more comfortable using the simple past. We always recommend proofreading if you’re working on a document that describes past actions. This will help catch any typos, extra spacing, or grammatical errors. A second pair of eyes always helps, so we recommend asking our proofreading experts to review your document. They’ll check for grammatical errors, ensure perfect spelling, and offer suggestions to improve your essay. You can even submit a 500-word document for free!

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