English – How do we use the Simple Past Tense?

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We use the simple past tense to talk about an action or a situation – an event – in the past. The event can be short or long.
Here are some short events with the simple past tense:

The car exploded at 9.30am yesterday.
She went to the door.
We did not hear the telephone.
Did you see that car?

Here are some long events with the simple past tense:

I lived in Bangkok for 10 years.
The Jurassic period lasted about 62 million years.
We did not sing at the concert.
Did you watch TV last night?

Notice that it does not matter how long ago the event is: it can be a few minutes or seconds in the past, or millions of years in the past. Also it does not matter how long the event is. It can be a few milliseconds (car explosion) or millions of years (Jurassic period). We use the simple past tense when:

  • the event is in the past

  • the event is completely finished

  • we say (or understand) the time and/or place of the event

In general, if we say the time or place of the event, we must use the simple past tense; we cannot use the present perfect.

Here are some more examples:

  • I lived in that house when I was young.

  • He didn’t like the movie.

  • What did you eat for dinner?

  • John drove to London on Monday.

  • Mary did not go to work yesterday.

  • Did you play tennis last week?

  • I was at work yesterday.

  • We were not late (for the train).

  • Were you angry?

Note that when we tell a story, we usually use the simple past tense. We may use the past continuous tense to "set the scene", but we almost always use the simple past tense for the action. Look at this example of the beginning of a story:

"The wind was howling around the hotel and the rain was pouring down. It was cold. The door opened and James Bond entered. He took off his coat, which was very wet, and ordered a drink at the bar. He sat down in the corner of the lounge and quietly drank his…"

This page shows the use of the simple past tense to talk about past events. But note that there are some other uses for the simple past tense, for example in conditional or if sentences.

List of Past tense

USE 1 Completed Action in the Past


Use the Simple Past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Sometimes, the speaker may not actually mention the specific time, but they do have one specific time in mind.

Examples:

  • I saw a movie yesterday.

  • I didn’t see a play yesterday.

  • Last year, I traveled to Japan.

  • Last year, I didn’t travel to Korea.

  • Did you have dinner last night?

  • She washed her car.

  • He didn’t wash his car.

USE 2 A Series of Completed Actions


We use the Simple Past to list a series of completed actions in the past. These actions happen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on.

Examples:

  • I finished work, walked to the beach, and found a nice place to swim.

  • He arrived from the airport at 8:00, checked into the hotel at 9:00, and met the others at 10:00.

  • Did you add flour, pour in the milk, and then add the eggs?

USE 3 Duration in Past


The Simple Past can be used with a duration which starts and stops in the past. A duration is a longer action often indicated by expressions such as: for two years, for five minutes, all day, all year, etc.

Examples:

  • I lived in Brazil for two years.

  • Shauna studied Japanese for five years.

  • They sat at the beach all day.

  • They did not stay at the party the entire time.

  • We talked on the phone for thirty minutes.

  • A: How long did you wait for them?
    B: We
    waited for one hour.

USE 4 Habits in the Past


The Simple Past can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as “Used to” To make it clear that we are talking about a habit, we often add expressions such as: always, often, usually, never, when I was a child, when I was younger, etc.

Examples:

  • 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.

USE 5 Past Facts or Generalizations


The Simple Past can also be used to describe past facts or generalizations which are no longer true. As in USE 4 above, this use of the Simple Past is quite similar to the expression “Used to”

Examples:

  • She was shy as a child, but now she is very outgoing.

  • He didn’t like tomatoes before.

  • Did you live in Texas when you were a kid?

  • People paid much more to make cell phone calls in the past.

IMPORTANT When-Clauses Happen First

Clauses are groups of words which have meaning but are often not complete sentences. Some clauses begin with the word "when" such as "when I dropped my pen…" or "when class began…" These clauses are called when-clauses, and they are very important. The examples below contain when-clauses.

Examples:

  • When I paid her one dollar, she answered my question.

  • She answered my question when I paid her one dollar.

When-clauses are important because they always happen first when both clauses are in the Simple Past. Both of the examples above mean the same thing: first, I paid her one dollar, and then, she answered my question. It is not important whether "when I paid her one dollar" is at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. However, the example below has a different meaning. First, she answered my question, and then, I paid her one dollar.

Example:

  • I paid her one dollar when she answered my question.

ADVERB PLACEMENT

The examples below show the placement for grammar adverbs such as: always, only, never, ever, still, just, etc.

Examples:

  • You just called Debbie.

  • Did you just call Debbie?

ACTIVE / PASSIVE

Examples:

  • Tom repaired the car. Active

  • The car was repaired by Tom. Passive

 

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