08 December 2011

Past Simple

When do I use it? What kind of meaning does it express?

Yesterday my friend called me.
Ten years ago I visited Paris.
Marco Polo traveled to China in the 13th century.

1. To report past events
The Past Simple tense is used to make a simple report of something which has happened in the past. It has to be about something which has been completed.

In comparison, the Past Continuous is more specific in describing the nature of the past, by describing a continuing action or state of being in the past.

To continue the comparison, the Present Perfect Tense has an emphasis on an action which has been completed, but yet has some connection to the present. I have seen that film. It has a connection to the present conversation, because perhaps two people are trying to decide which film to watch.

But in comparison if one uses the Past Simple and says, I saw that film, he makes no connection to the moment's conversation. It is only a reporting of a past event.

So the Past Simple often is, like its name, simple. It just describes a specific action which took place in the past. It can be thought of as a basic expression of the past in English; the other tenses for the past are used for more specialized situations.

2. A series of completed actions in the past

Yesterday I got up, I ate breakfast, I read the newspaper, I showered, and then I went to work.

The example sentence describes a list of events which took place in someone's life yesterday. There is not much intended meaning to this sentence apart from reporting in chronological order what took place. From the sentence it's also clear that each action was completed. The verbs in the example sentence are got up, ate, read, showered, and went, and all are in the Past Simple.

However, if one of these actions had been interrupted before being completed, it would have been necessary to use the Past Continuous. For example:

I was reading the newspaper, when the phone rang.

In this example, the action was interrupted before it could be completed. So, I was reading is in the Past Continuous; and rang is in the Past Simple. This is a very common construction in English: Past Continuous followed by Past Simple, to show that some ongoing process was happening, which was interrupted by some other specific, shorter action.

3. Past facts or generalizations or habits
As you may already know, the Present Simple is used to report a habit or state of being.

My sister practices the piano every evening. David likes to swim.

My husband plays golf every Saturday.
My husband played golf every Saturday when he was a teenager.

My mother watches TV every evening.
My mother watched TV every evening when I was a little girl.

My sister practices the piano every evening.
My sister practiced the piano every evening when she was a child.

In the same way, as shown in the examples above, the Past Simple may be used for a habit or state of being which was happening in the past.

4. Conditional "If" Clauses

The Past Simple is also be used in conditional clauses, to express what could happen. In the box are two examples:

If I told you my secret, would you tell anyone else?

If we bought a new car, would we have enough money for other things?

The verbs "bought" and "told" are in the Past Simple. In these cases the meaning of the sentence has nothing at all to do with what has happened in the past. Instead, a meaning of possibility is being expressed.

This kind of construction is called the Second Conditional.

5. Weak Verbs

The form the verb uses to express a statement in the past simple is often irregular. These are called weak verbs; weak, meaning they are subject to change and influence.  So in order to use the past simple, when making a statement, you have to remember English's many weak verb forms. But, NB! When forming a question or a negative, the first form of the verb is used.  This will be covered in point 6 below.

So, a weak verb is one which does not keep its form through all of its tenses; for example,

run, ran; win, won; see, saw; ring, rang; think, thought.

I am tearing the paper in half at this moment.
I tore the paper in half yesterday.
The paper is now torn in half.

That's an example of a verb with three different forms for the present, past simple, and past participle: tear, tore, torn; and there are many more!

6. Forming Questions and Negatives
Remember, that when making a question with the Past Simple, you do not use the 2nd form of the verb.  Instead, you go back to the first form.  Note this example:

He tore the paper in half.
Did he tear the paper in half?
He didn't tear the paper in half.

The auxiliary verb do is also used for questions and negatives, just as it is used for the Present Simple, except that the past form, did is used.

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