Knowing how to use tenses correctly and appropriately is a major part of using the English language and thus, being taken seriously. The past indefinite is so commonly used that it's important to cover it early on.
The past indefinite is used to refer to something that happened in the past. It is also referred to as 'past simple'; an appropriate name as it is the most basic form of past tenses in the English language. By this, we mean that it follows an uncomplicated structure and takes on a straightforward set of rules.
An example of a past indefinite sentence is "I went to school in California".
It is one of the first of the past tenses that students would focus on in school, which is why it’s the tense that we’re focusing on today. We’ll cover everything from what it is, how it’s structured, and how to use it in everyday situations.
Why are tenses so important when it comes to learning the English language, as well as speaking it? And what purpose does the past indefinite tense serve? That is what you are about to find out.
Tenses are used to modify verbs, in a way that tells the speaker whether we’re talking about the past, present, or future. In fact, tenses are so evolved that we can even use them to infer whether something is still happening, ended a long time ago, ended recently, or even to differentiate between an action in the past that you did once and one that you did continuously.
Isn’t language just so smart?
The past indefinite tense is also called the past simple. It is used to refer to something that happened in the past, as you may have guessed from the name. It is the most basic form of past tenses, hence why it’s called the ‘Past Simple’.
Other past tenses in the English language include the Past Continuous, the Past Perfect, and the Past Perfect Continuous.
But there aren’t only past tenses, as we are sure you know. There are also present and future tenses, to cater to when we want to describe an event that takes place in the present or is yet to take place in days or years to come.
Here’s a list of the different tenses of the English language:
That’s all well and good, we hear you say. But how do you actually use it? That’s what we’ll get onto next.
Firstly to build a sentence using the past indefinite tense, you’ll need to know how to conjugate a verb into its past indefinite tense. The basic rule is as follows.
Take the infinitive of the verb and add ‘ed’, or simply ‘d’ if the verb already ends with an ‘e’. For example:
Many verbs end in a vowel and a consonant. An extra consonant is added when these verbs are turned into the past tense. For example, ‘admit’ turns into ‘admitted’. See how we added another ‘t’ and then ‘ed’. Some other examples include:
There! Simple enough right? We wish. But you know just as well as I do that the English language is full to the brim with irregular verbs. So for this reason, we’re going to introduce you to a very handy concept that will help you. The concept of verb 1, verb 2, and verb 3. Verb 1 refers to the infinitive form of a verb; verb 2 refers to the past simple form of a verb, and verb 3 refers to the participle form.
Here are a few examples:
This concept and table are handy for remembering how to conjugate verbs. That’s because there are so many irregular verbs in the English language, and with that many instances where the rules don’t apply, it’s a handy way to remember.
People tend to recite verbs 1, 2, and 3 like a song. In this way, it helps them remember how to conjugate irregular verbs. For example, if you ask someone what the past indefinite tense of the verb ‘to eat’ is, you might hear them go “eat, ate, eaten… it’s ‘eaten’!
Another kind of past indefinite sentence you can use is an affirmative sentence. These are used to state something that is true to the speaker, a fact, or an opinion about something that did happen, as opposed to negative sentences.
The basic structure of an affirmative sentence in the past indefinite tense:
Subject + V2 + object/modifier + past time marker (optional)
Of course, you can make this sentence more complex by adding in other parts of the sentence, such as marker in time, adverbs, adjectives, and so on.
The second kind of past indefinite sentence you can use is a negative sentence. It’s used to negate something, or in other words, to say how something didn’t happen, or isn’t true.
The basic structure of a negative sentence in the past indefinite tense is quite different from that of a positive sentence. It looks like this:
Subject + did + not + V1
As you can see, the verb ‘did’ is already in the past indefinite tense, so that’s taken care of. This means that your main verb can remain in the infinitive - or verb 1 form. This means the structure of past indefinite negative sentences is actually much easier to use since it doesn’t rely on remembering the V2 conjugations.
Note: ‘didn’t’ and ‘did not’ are interchangeable.
As with affirmative past indefinite sentences, you can keep it simple or create pretty complex sentences.
This one’s also pretty self-explanatory, but we’ll go ahead and explain it anyway. Interrogative sentences are used to ask questions (‘interrogative’ comes from the verb ‘to interrogate’). Therefore, the purpose of interrogative sentences in the past indefinite tense is to ask a question about an event from the past.
Their basic structure is the following:
Did + subject + V1 + ?
Here are some examples:
Here are some examples of more complex sentences, created by adding other types of words to the above basic structure:
Or, to make things interesting, you could even add in a WH question word. See the following examples:
Now that you know how to structure a verb in the past indefinite tense, you know that it’s the perfect tense to use when talking about events that started and ended in the past. In other words, they are no longer happening. Unlike some tenses, which can be used to describe an event that started in the past but is still ongoing in the present.
So which contexts can you use the past indefinite in? Let’s talk about it.
The past indefinite or past simple is perfect if you want to simply state an event that happened in the past. For example:
She learned to speak Japanese.
This tense can also be used to talk about how you or someone else was in the past. For example:
We were very happy living in Vancouver.
Talking about a habit you had in the past? Something you did often? The past indefinite is perfect for that.
We always played in the park after school.
There are many more uses of the past indefinite that we could probably think of, but likely too many to cover in this article. That’s how popular this tense is!
Do you have any ideas of other contexts it could be used in? We're sure if you give it a little thought, you'll be able to come up with lots of others.
In the meantime, hopefully, you feel clearer about the use of the past indefinite tense - also called the past simple tense - and know when and how to employ it.
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