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Rules for Using Past Tense

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  • 0:03 What Is Past Tense?
  • 1:02 Simple Past and Past…
  • 1:50 What Is a Past Participle?
  • 2:40 What Is an Irregular Verb?
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The main rules for using past tense are to determine if you are using simple past and past perfect tenses correctly and to correctly use the simple past or past participle forms of the verbs. This lesson walks you through each of these rules.

What Is Past Tense?

Past tense refers to the form that verbs take when the action described is happening in the past, as opposed to the present or future. Many people think they know the rules for how to use past tense: if the event is in the past, add an '-ed' to the end of the verb. And for a lot of situations, this is the answer. For example, let's say you wanted to describe Henry and Jane walking to school:

  • Henry and Jane walk to school.

In this sentence, the verb 'walk' is in its present tense form, also known as its root form. For the verb 'walk,' if the event happened in the past, you would simply add '-ed' to the verb, creating what is called the simple past form of the verb:

  • Henry and Jane walked to school yesterday.

Unfortunately, as often happens with English, not all situations are that simple. There are two big considerations to keep in mind. First, is the event in simple past or past perfect tense? And second, is the verb regular or irregular?

Simple Past and Past Perfect Tenses

Our previous example is in the form of past tense known as simple past. As the name implies, it is the most basic form of past tense. If the event happened at some point in the past and nothing else is going on, use simple past.

But what if the event happened in the past, but then stopped because of some other event? For example, what if Henry and Jane had stopped walking to school at some point? Well, that is where the past perfect tense comes in:

  • Henry and Jane had walked to school every day this week, but this morning it was raining.

In this example, the raining had stopped Henry and Jane from walking to school, so the verb is in past perfect, which is expressed with the combination of the verbs 'had' and 'walked.' This combination uses the past participle form of 'walk,' which is 'walked.'

What Is a Past Participle?

But wait, isn't 'walked' the simple past form of the verb? Why is it also called the past participle? Why have two different names for the same word? That's because 'walk' is a regular verb. For all regular verbs, both the simple past and past participle are just the root form with '-ed' at the end.

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