The past simple is one of the basic verb tenses of English, so you should quickly understand its use if you are learning the language from scratch. It is one of the simplest times and one of the first to be learned. This form is the equivalent of the past imperfect in Spanish. With these simple steps you can comfortably assimilate its correct use.
Method 1 of 3: Know How to Use It
Step 1. Use it in context
The past simple is the tense in English to which you must add the stem of the verb plus the ending in -ed. It has a defined context, so you should use it in all those events that fit it. The past simple is used to:
Finished actions, fixed habits, followed actions and events not connected with the present
Step 2. Use it for finished actions:
This verb tense is used for actions that occur in a defined time, at a certain moment in the past and that have already ended. Look at the example below:
- Example: I have sold his car two weeks ago. / He sold his car two weeks ago.
- When? Two weeks ago / When? Two weeks ago. (Definite and closed time)
Step 3. Use it in fixed habits
You should bear in mind that its use should be limited to past times. That is why you must introduce it in your sentences to express a state of the past of someone or something. It is also used when you talk about a habit that is fixed, that always occurs, but in the past.
When she was Young she lived in a small flat. / When she was little she lived in a small apartment
Step 4. Use it in follow-up actions
It also concentrates its use in expressing past actions that have occurred one after another, within the past. This example will be given in events that have occurred one after the other.
She put on her coat, took her bag and left the house. / She put on her coat, grabbed her bag and left the house
Step 5. Use it for past actions
You must place it in sentences that are set in a past tense of the action whose tense is not mentioned and is not connected with the present tense. Consider examples like the one below:
- Example: I saw Elvis Presley / I saw Elvis Presley.
- I won´t see him again; he´s dead (period of time now finished) / I will not see him again, he is dead (period of time now finished).
Method 2 of 3: Learn Your Shapes
Step 1. Know your adverbs
There are specific adverbs for the use of this verb tense, so you should know them to speed up their use. Learn them by heart if possible, as they will make the task extremely easy and you will learn to use the past simple in a more natural and automatic way.
- Time adverbs and expressions used with the simple past: Yesterday, Last week / month / year / Monday; ago, how long ago, just now, then, when, in 1980s, etc.
- Remember them, because on many occasions they can help you identify this verb tense when correctly translating a text.
- Practice constantly with exercises on the subject. You can find many on the internet.
Step 2. Learn the different verbs
Not only do we have regular verbs, but there are other irregular ones. The most appropriate thing is that you learn how to identify and separate them among their similar, so that you can position yourself and transform the verb into the past by seeing its infinitive or any other verb form. There are different types of roots:
- Add -e + d: hated (verb to hate), phoned (verb to phone), loved (verb to love), liked (verb to like).
- Double consonant + ed: stopped (to stop), planned (to plan), begged (to beg), tipped (to type), traveled (to travel).
- Consonant + y = ied: cried (to cry), emptied (to empty), tried (to try).
- Vocal + y = + ed: stayed (to stay), annoyed (to annoy), destroyed (to destroy), enjoyed (to enjoy), played (to play), prayed (to pray).
Step 3. Separate them by pronunciation
To form this tense with the usual regular verbs, we will use the infinitive of these verbs by adding the ending –ed after them. But this suffix behaves differently depending on the letter that goes to the end of the verb. The most normal thing is that the "e" is silent, but there are exceptions.
- Infinitives ending in P / F / K / S, the so-called voiceless consonants, except the T. Here you pronounce the ending -ed as a T: looked, kissed.
- Infinitives ending in B / G / L / M / N / V / Z, voiced consonants except D or a vowel. Here you should only pronounce the D: yelled, cleaned.
- Infinitives ending in D / T, you must pronounce them with the E as if it were an I: ended, waited.
Method 3 of 3: Use Time Correctly
Step 1. Use the verb “to be”
Separate affirmative sentences from negative ones, distinguish their use, since their expression is very different in both cases. The use of the verb to be (was / were - wasn´t / weren´t) is key in this verb tense. On the contrary, the verb “to have got”, which in the simple present tense does follow the rules of the verb “to be”. In the past simple it cannot be used in the same way, therefore, to indicate possession in the past, it uses the verb “to have”.
- Affirmative: She was a doctor / The keys were in the drawer.
- Negative: She wasn´t a doctor / The keys weren´t in the drawer.
Step 2. Know the rest of the verbs
For the negations of the other verbs, the past tense is used in the common form, adding the suffixes that you have already learned. The sentences will be composed of subject, auxiliary verb (to do), "not" and the main verb in the infinitive. The following examples will make it clearer:
- I didn't want to play / I didn't want to play.
- They didn´t learn French / They didn´t learn French.
- We didn´t believe her / We didn´t believe him.
Step 3. Question phrases
As in previous examples, you will separate the use of the verb "to be", which will be different from all the others. In the first case, you will use it with the following structure: "to be" + subject … ?. For the other verbs, you will use this one: auxiliary verb (to do) + subject * main verb (in infinitive)…?
- Example with "to be": Was she a teacher? / Was she a teacher?
- Examples of other verbs: Did they learn French? / Did you learn French?
- Learn the irregular verb tables by heart once you understand how this verb tense is structured, so you will advance more quickly when using verbs in sentences and your expression will improve.
- Try to practice as much as you can, doing exercises with these verb tenses, in order to perfect your learning. There are a multitude of activity books that you can buy at your nearest bookstore.