Past Tense

A PDF version is also available: Past tense_Grammar Badgers

Past Tense


In this handout, you’ll read about why the past tense is here, followed by a brief history of why we have regular and irregular verbs . You’ll then read some tips about how to teach the past tense. And finally, you’ll see some language games for teaching the past tense.



You might say the past tense isn’t really a complicated structure, why is it here? Well, the answer is ‘it’s here because some of the ESL tutors we interviewed thought it’s hard to explain; they asked why some verbs are irregular and some aren’t.’ As an ESL teacher, you intuitively know which verbs have irregular past tense forms and what verbs form the past tense using the fricative suffix (i.e., have regular past tense forms). But, the challenge comes when your student asks you why.


English is a descendant of the Proto-Indo-European language. It used to be a much more inflected language than what it is today. Some reasons why English isn’t as much inflected include the shift of stress to the first syllable of the word (as a result the vowel at the end, where inflection is, lost its distinction and either became the schwa or became a zero vowel), word order taking over the function of inflection, and borrowings from other languages.

Anyway, in Old English, there were two kinds of verbs: strong and weak. The past tense of strong verbs would be formed through a change in the quality of the verb’s vowel which is called ‘ablaut.’ So for example, sing, sang, sung and choose, chose, chosen are examples of strong verbs. On the other hand, the past tense of weak verbs was formed by the addition of a dental suffix [d/t], which today we call the –ed ending.



Irregular verbs in English today used to be strong verbs in Old English. Their past tense forms, therefore, involve a change in verb’s vowel, not a morphological change. Although there could be no definitive rule to identify patterns of vowel change for irregular verbs, below you can find some general rules of thumb.

  • Vowel shift from /i/ to /ɛ/

creep                            crept

keep                             kept

kneel                            knelt

meet                             met

deal                              dealt

mean                            meant

read                             read

  • /e/ before /l/ to /o/ + final zero consonant to /d/

tell                               told

sell                               sold

  • /ow/ to /u:/ in past tense and /own/ in past participle

blow                            blew

know                           knew

throw                           threw

  • Vowel shift from /ɪ/ to /ʌ/

stick                             stuck

dig                               dug

swing                          swung

  • Vowel shift /aɪ/ to /æʊ/

bind                             bound

grind                            ground

wind                            wound



Regular verbs are what used to be the weak verbs in Old English. Their past tense, therefore, is formed by the addition of the –ed suffix to the end of the verb base. The past tense of regular verbs is formed by the addition of the –ed suffix. There are three rules which can tell you whether this suffix will be pronounced /t/, /d/, or /ɪd/. In the table below, you’ll find these rules with some examples.

Rule Example
Rule 1. If the base form of the verb ends with a voiceless sound, like /p/, /f/, /k/, /s/, the –ed suffix will be pronounced /t/ Worked, dropped, divorced, finished, laughed, watched
Rule 2. If the base form of the verb ends with a voiced sound, like /b/, /v/, /g/, /z/, the –ed suffix will be pronounced /d/. Note that all vowels are voiced. Involved, married, stayed, studied, engaged, bagged, ebbed, raised
Rule 3. If the base form of the verb ends with a /t/ or /d/ sound, the –ed suffix will be pronounced /ɪd/ Betted, started, attended, mended


  • Write a number of verbs in their base forms on the board. Ask one of the students to make a sentence in the past tense with one of the verbs on the board. Call on the next student and ask them to make another sentence with another verb but they should remember and reproduce the sentence(s) produced by the other student(s) before them and conjoin the sentences with a conjunction, like and. Whoever fails the memory test will be out of the game.
  • Write two columns of verbs in their base form on the board. Ask students to form two lines leading up to each one of the columns. The first student in the line will run to the board and write the past form of the first verb, they will then return and hand the marker or chalk to the next person in their line. The next person then will write the past form of the next verb. The group that finishes first is the winner.
  • Ask students to go outside the classroom and take notes on what they observe as they wander around the school. When they come back, ask them to tell the class what they observed in the past tense.
  • Another simple activity that will serve two purposes would be to ask students to tell the class what was taught in the last class. You need to make sure that every student contributes, so feel free to interrupt and call on other students, so you’ll get everybody in the class to talk.


  • The past tense of irregular verbs in English is formed by a change in the quality of the base verb’s vowel.
  • The past tense of regular verbs in English is formed through the addition of the –ed suffix
  • Although there is no definitive rule on how to change the vowel in irregular verbs, the pronunciation of the –ed suffix on regular verbs is quite rule-governed
  • Language games can make the practice of past tense formation quite fun; try to relate your games and class activities to your students’ personal experiences and interests