What Is the Simple past?

Cynde Gregory

Every language has some way in which events that occurred in the past can be expressed, but not all languages have a marked past tense. English has a number of ways to talk about something that occurred and is over or that occurred and is still happening. The most common way to do this is with the simple past tense, which is also called the preterite. The simple past is usually formed by adding the suffix ed to a verb, although there are many irregular verbs that form this tense in a variety of ways.

The simple past is usually formed by adding the suffix ed to a verb.
The simple past is usually formed by adding the suffix ed to a verb.

A brief meditation on the nature of things past should make it very clear that the past is rarely as truly past as the term might make it seem. The simple past is used to describe a wealth of ways in which things that are no longer present occurred. The cleanest past names something that began and ended in a limited time, which hasn’t got anything to do with the present at all. For example, “Yesterday, I rode my bike” tells a listener about an action of limited duration. It almost seems as though this type of past exists in a world sealed away from the present.

A less cleanly delineated but still clearly past application of the past tense is when it is used to describe something that lasted for a somewhat unclear, but clearly over, stretch of time. For example, should dotty Aunt Dottie remark “For several years as a young child, I believed animals spoke to me,” it’s obvious that she has either come to her senses or lost her strange ability. Again, that type of past seems to exist solely in the past.

An even foggier past tense is nonetheless conjured by the same past verb form. Something that was habitual, that happened repeatedly, often, or frequently but now no longer occurs is expressed in the simple past. Here, it seems to whisper the unspoken addition of used to as in the statement, “I always wondered if I’d be a famous ballet dancer, but I’m 73, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

This tense can even be used to describe an ongoing state of being rather than an action. Perhaps this is the least clear-cut way of using the simple past of all because there is really no precise moment when a state begins or finishes. It simple is, and then, it simply isn’t. The example, “I was a slender child; I was so thin that people constantly fed me cookies and cake,” demonstrates this concept. Sometimes, the simplicity of this type of past is a state we all wish we could return to, but we are anchored in the present and lumbering into the future, which will turn present moments into the stuff of a simple past.

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