For actions that happened in the past
The past simple is the most usual tense for talking about things that happened or finished before now. Very often we use a word or expression of finished time with this tense. In the following example sentences the expressions of finished time are shown in bold:
- She came to Germany two years ago.
- It rained every day for a week on my vacation.
- Columbus discovered America in 1492.
- I played tennis at the weekend.
- [Passive] The cat was injured when it fell out of a tree.
- I didn't see you yesterday. Were you in school?
- My mother went shopping on Saturday but she didn't buy anything.
- I felt embarrassed when the teacher asked an easy question but I didn't know the answer.
- The weather was bad this afternoon* so we didn't have a picnic as planned.
- How did you do that?
- Did you see the film on TV last night?
- Why didn't you do your homework?
* In this sentence the speaker is talking in the evening, so for her this afternoon is finished time.
In reported speech
In reported speech it is common to shift the tense back. So for example, if someone said something to you in the present tense, you would report it in the past tense.
Look at these examples. In each case the first sentence is direct speech and the second sentence is in reported speech. The verbs in the past simple form are shown in bold.
She said: "I live in Frankfurt."
She told me she lived in Frankfurt.*
He said: "I can speak 5 languages."
He said he could speak 5 languages.
The new girl said: "My father is a millionaire!"
The new girl told me her father was a millionaire but I don't believe her!
[Passive] He wondered: "Is this product sold on Amazon?"
He wondered if the product was sold on Amazon.
She said: "My mother doesn't like German food."
She said her mother didn't like German food.
He said: "I don't feel well."
He said he didn't feel well.
She asked: "Do you like ESL lessons?"
She asked me if I liked ESL lessons.
The teacher said: "Do you know the answer?"
The teacher asked me if I knew the answer.
* It is common in modern spoken English to not change the tense if you believe that what someone told you is still true. So, for example, we could say:
- She said she lives in Frankfurt.
- She told me her mother doesn't like German food.
More on the reported speech
In conditional sentences
The past simple tense is used in Conditional 2 sentences. Have a look at some examples before reading the explanation about what the conditional 2 is. The verbs in past simple form are shown in bold.
- I would help you if I had time!
- If I were the teacher, I would give lots of homework every day!
- What would you buy if you won a lot of money?
- If you bought a calculator, you wouldn't have to borrow mine all the time!
- If you didn't eat so much junk food, you would be a lot fitter!
- I would be much happier if you didn't do that!
The past simple (conditional 2) is used in these sentences to express the idea of something that is not true or that the speaker thinks is unlikely to happen. So, in the first 3 sentences above, the interpretations would be:
- (I would help you if I had time!) - I don't have time...
- (If I were* the teacher) - I am not the teacher...
- (What would you buy if you won a lot of money?) - I don't think it is likely you will win a lot of money...
* Strictly speaking, were is the subjunctive form here, not the past tense.
More on the conditional
More resources for learning the past simple
Go to a page with a conjugation of the past simple in positive statements, negative statements and questions.
There are several interactive quizzes on the past simple in the Verb grammar: Tenses drop-down menu on the Grammar index.