The past simple is probably the hardest tense to learn in English in terms of the wide variety of irregular verbs. While these sometimes fall into categories, identifying whether a verb should fall into one category or another can be a difficult if not impossible task. For example, ‘cleave’ (to cut something in two) becomes ‘cleaved/cloved’ in the simple past tense. A verb that looks similar, ‘leave’ becomes ‘left’.
However, there is a bright side. Unlike the present simple, where he/she/it (first person singular pronouns) has a different conjugation (e.g. likes vs. like), the past simple does not have this change, meaning that there is only one conjugation in the past.
The largest group of verbs are regular verbs, meaning that they follow some kind of pattern when you conjugate them. In English the simple past adds the letter ‘d’ to the verb in the infinitive (i.e. not conjugated verb) when spelling and a ‘d’ or ‘t’ sound when speaking. This has three different forms:
- If a verb ends in a vowel, add a ‘d’. For example:
receive -> received
- If the verb ends in a consonant, add an ‘ed’. For example:
walk -> walked
- If the verb ends in a ‘y’, the ‘y’ changes to an ‘i’ and add an ‘ed’. For example:
try -> tried
Fortunately for learners of English, most verbs in the English language are regular verbs. Unfortunately for learners of English, the most used verbs in English are not regular verbs. This usually means, however, that if a learner comes across a new verb, conjugating it is usually a simple matter. Beware: there are always exceptions!
While irregular verbs may be difficult to learn to conjugate correctly and accurately when used, they do fall into some general categories that may help English learners to make the task of memorisation easier.
Due to English spelling, it can be difficult to realise that some verbs fall into the same category. My advice for learners is to sound out both the verb infinitive and past simple conjugation. The pronunciation is often where we can see patterns in the irregular verbs. For this reason, I have also given the IPA spellings based on British pronunciation.
Not really a large category but an important one nonetheless, which contains the most irregular verb in the English language is the verb ‘to be’. There is actually a great reason for this: our modern ‘to be’ actually comes from three different verbs (more on its history and why it is so funky can be found at this link).
In the past, the verb is conjugated as follows:
As you can see, it has fewer conjugations than in the present simple tense.
Another completely irregular but highly used verb in the simple past is the verb ‘to go’, which becomes ‘went’ in the past. It has the same conjugation for all subjects in the past. So I went, you went, he/she/it went, we went, they went. It is just one of those verbs that have to be memorised.
Category 2: Vowel or vowel-sound changing verbs
Our second category includes verbs that either have a vowel change when spelling (and the pronunciation changes) or the pronunciation of the vowel changes in the past. Some examples are:
- dig (/dɪg/) -> dug (/dʌg/) – short ‘i’ to short ‘u’ sound
- bite (/baɪt/) -> bit (/bɪt/) – long ‘i’ to short ‘i’ sound
- break (/breɪk/) -> broke (/brəʊk/) – long ‘a’ to long ‘o’ sound
- choose (/ʧuːz/) -> chose (/ʧəʊz/) – long ‘u’ to long ‘o’ sound
- drink (/drɪŋk/) -> drank (/dræŋk/) – short ‘i’ to short ‘a’ sound
- find (/faɪnd/) -> found (/faʊnd/) – short ‘i’ to ‘ow’ sound
As we can see, this category covers a large range of verbs with many different sounds. What they have in common are the vowel changes, which changes the stressed vowel sound in the word to another.
Category 3: Change in consonant after vowel sound (no change in vowel sound)
This category includes verbs that do not change their vowel sound but do change the consonant(s) that come after this sound. Example include:
- to make (/meɪk/) -> made (/meɪd/) – ‘k’ becomes a ‘d’ sound
- to lay (/leɪ/) -> laid (/leɪd/) – no sound to ‘d’ sound
Category 4: Change in vowel sound and consonant after vowel
This category contains two changes in the verb when conjugating to the past simple tense: one in the vowel sound and one in the consonant sound directly after the vowel sound.
- keep (/kiːp/) -> kept (/kɛpt) – long ‘e’ to short ‘e’ and ‘p’ to ‘pt’ sound
- do (/duː/) -> did (/dɪd/) – long ‘u’ to short ‘i’ and no consonant to ‘d’ sound
- say (/seɪ/) -> said (/sɛd/) – long ‘a’ to short ‘e’ (schwa) and no consonant to ‘d’ sound
- sell (/sɛl/)-> sold (/səʊld/) – short ‘e’ to long ‘o’ and no consonant to ‘d’ sound
- leave (/liːv/) -> left (/lɛft/) – long ‘e’ to short ‘e’ and ‘v’ to ‘ft’ sound
Category 5: Change to ‘ought/aught’
This category shows a radical change from the infinitive form by changing the end of the verb to either ‘ought’ or ‘aught’. Examples include:
- buy (/baɪ/) -> bought (/bɔːt/)
- think (/θɪŋk/) -> thought (/θɔːt/)
- teach (/tiːʧ/) -> taught (/tɔːt/)
Category 6: No Change
This category shows no change between the present and past simple tenses. Sometimes there is a change in the pronunciation (usually a long vowel to the same vowel sound but shorter or vice versa) but not in the way it is written.
- put (/pʊt/) -> put (/pʊt/)
- set (/sɛt/) -> set (/sɛt/)
- read (/riːd/) -> read (/rɛd/) – note the change from long ‘e’ to short ‘e’ sound
And there you have it! The major categories and how the past simple is formed for these verbs. But there are so many verbs! How can I learn them all? The best way is to practise and use them. There are many activities on the internet that allow you to practise and then give you automatic feedback. If you can speak to native speakers (for example, using apps like Tandem if you do not know any native speakers), they can help you if you make a mistake.
But I just came across a verb. How can I know what the correct form of the verb is? A great resource for learning the different verb forms are online dictionary, especially those that are aimed at learners, such as the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Simply type in a word and it will give you all the forms for the verb along with the different meanings and how they are used.
But how do you use the Past Simple? Great question. More information about how to use the past simple can be found at this link (coming soon!).
If you liked this post, why not check out my Teaching English page for more articles. Specialised English topics can also be found under posts such as Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.