The past simple is a very common tense in English. There are several tenses that describe the past in English, such as the past simple, the past continuous, and the past perfect. As the name implies, the it is the simplest of these.
For example: He studied English last night.
The verb in this sentence, study, is in the past simple tense.
Using the Past Simple
1. Describe a Finished Action
Use it to describe a finished action in the past that happened once or more than once. The key here is that the action is finished. It doesn’t continue now.
For example: “I called him at 6:00.”
Called is the past tense form of the word call. The sentence implies that it’s after 6:00 – maybe it’s the same day, maybe it’s not – and the action is finished. You’re not on the phone with him anymore.
2. Describe an Action in the Past
Use it to describe an action in the past interrupting another past action. We use the past simple when we are referring to an action that took place in the middle of another action in the past.
For example: “I dropped the spoon while I was cooking.”
This means that the person started cooking first, then while she was cooking she dropped the spoon. The implication is that these two actions happened at the same time, but she dropped the spoon after she started cooking. The phrase was cooking is in the past continuous tense.
3. Describe Multiple Actions in the Past
Use it for multiple actions in the past happening one after another. The past simple is also used to describe a series of finished actions that happened in the past.
For example: “He put on his coat, opened the door, and went outside.”
These actions happened one after another. First, he put on his coat, then he opened the door, then he went outside. He didn’t do them at the same time.
4. Look for Signal Words
Signal words are words like first, therefore, or while; they are used to connect ideas and show a logical relationship between ideas. They show time and order, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and more.
In relation to the past simple, signal words can signal to the listener or reader if an action happened in the past and whether or not it’s finished.
For example: “They met four months ago.”
The word ago connotes that the action is finished. They met – this is a one-time action – and now, presumably, they know each other. Another common signal word is last.
For example: “She bought the car last Friday.”
This indicates that the action happened in the past, on the most recent Friday, and is finished.
5. Learn Irregular Verbs
This is a big one. In English there are regular verbs and irregular verbs. With regular verbs, you add -ed to the end of the base form of the verb. So, the past simple form of clean is cleaned.
Irregular verbs don’t have a regular past simple form; they have many different forms and they simply have to be memorized. For example, the past of eat is ate; the past of buy is bought; drink becomes drank; and so on.
It’s very important to learn irregular verbs. You can find lists, examples, and exercises online.