Past tense in English

When you’re learning a new language, one of the most difficult things to understand is grammar. There’s a lot to remember and practise, making grammar something that many people struggle with. In English, there are two main tenses; the past and the present. In this article we will explore the past tense and how to use it correctly.


How to form the past tense

The main rule states that for every verb in English, there is one form of it in the past tense. (The exception is to be, which has two forms: was and were). This is completely different to other languages like Spanish, French, and Italian which involves changing the verb ending for every subject.

E.g. The past tense of the verb walk is walked.

Walked is used as the past tense for all subjects/pronouns.


I walked

You walked

He/she/it walked

We walked

They walked


Regular verbs in the past tense

Usually you just need to add –ED to the end of a verb, to change it to its past tense form.


Work – worked

Jump – jumped

Snow – snowed

Cook - cooked


Negative sentences

Use didn’t or did not to create a negative sentence in the past tense, this is applied to both regular and irregular verbs.


For example:

Present: They don't work in Mexico.

Past: They didn' t work in Mexico.


The main verb (work) is in its infinitive form. The auxiliary verb (didn’t) shows that the sentence is negative and in the past tense.


Questions in the past tense

Use did to make a question in the past tense. This is for both regular and irregular verbs.

For example:

Present: Do they live in America?

Past: Did they live in America?

The main verb (live) is in its infinitive form. The auxiliary verb (did) shows that the question is in the past tense.

Both do and does in present tense questions become did/didn’t in past tense questions.

For example:

Present: Do you need help?

Past: Did you need help?


Irregular verbs in the past tense

Irregular verbs are only irregular in positive sentences.


For example:

The past tense of go is went.

(It does not end in –ED so it is considered irregular).


The word went is used for all subjects:


I went to the beach

He went to the park.

She went to the zoo.

They went to the library.


But, it is only in its irregular form (went) in sentences that are positive.


Compare the following using go in the past tense.


They went to the beach

They didn't go to the beach

Did they go to the beach?


This just scratches the surface of the many different rules that are involved with the past tense in English. If you’d like to learn more about grammar take a look at our previous article English grammar rules to remember.

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