Q&A: Past tense vs Past participle

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, things get tense… real tense…

Q: Hi there gang – I’m really excited about this week being the week when when they travelled forward in time in Back to the Future II… So I have a question.
A: Let’s guess: you want to know if it’s spelt DeLorean or Delorean? It’s the first one, with a capital L in the middle – and the model was actually the DeLorean DMC-12, manufactured for just a few years in the early 1980s.
Q: Um, no that wasn’t my question. But thanks, I think.
A: Ah, so what would you like to know about?
Q: Well it’s a tense situation.
A: Really? We’re all friends here, just kicking back – shooting the grammar breeze. Relax!
Q: No, I mean it’s about tenses. Past tense, really. I want to know – wait, did you just say “shooting the grammar breeze”?
A: Yeah, we did. We’re not proud of that moment. Let’s move on.
Q: Okay, well I want to know the difference between a past tense and a past participle. Can you help?
A: Are you sure you don’t want to hear more about DeLoreans?
Q: No, I’m good.
A: Well okay then. This Q&A section certainly isn’t long enough to explain all aspects of English verb tenses, but your question seems tightly defined enough.
Q: Good to hear. So, how do we begin?
A: Okay, well the past tense is also known as “simple past tense” – and it’s actually a pretty easy one to pin down. It’s simply something that has happened in the past and isn’t happening anymore. Simple! The past tense of a regular verb like “walk” would be “walked” – and the example would be “I walked for an hour this morning”.
Q: Yes, but what about past participles? What IS a participle?
A: Well, it’s a kind of verb that tells you more about a noun. It’s sort of how adverbs or adjectives work, but participles are actually made by modifying the verb itself rather than plonking a new word in front of one. In English, they can be either present or past.
Q: So I think it’s time for some past participle examples.
A: You’re right. Remember that we have regular verbs and irregular ones. Regular verbs are easy – to form a simple past tense, you add “-ed” on the end. And for a past participle, you do the same. So with our “walk” example, simple past tense was “walked” and the past participle is also “walked” – as in “She had walked for miles.”
Q: And irregular verbs?
A: The thing that makes them irregular is how the simple past and past participle are formed. Sometimes these forms will be the same, but often there is a different word for each.
Q: Examples, examples, examples.
A: Haha, yep, getting to it! So consider the irregular verb “write”. Simple past tense is “wrote” (I wrote a good book). And the past participle is “written” (I wish I had written the book). Another irregular verb is “buy” – but this time both past forms are “bought”. The simple past (“I bought five of AWC’s on-demand courses”) and past participle (“If only I had bought more”).
Q: Are the past tense and past participle ever the same as the original verb?
A: Sure. Think about irregular verbs such as “cut”, “sit”, “hurt”, “hit”, “cost”, “put” or “let”. Both the simple past and past participle are the same. So, “to cut” and “I cut the ribbon” and “I had cut the ribbon”. Same with the others.
Q: Funny how they all end in T.
A: That’s true, it is. English is fun.
Q: Any other unusual ones?
A: Well, one that’s often confused is drink/drank/drunk. “Drink” is the verb, with “drank” the simple past tense (“He drank the milk”) and “drunk” as the past participle (“He had drunk too much milk”).
Q: Yeah, that IS a good one. What about “John was drunk”?
A: Well, that’s an adjective – nothing to do with what we’re talking about. We just hope John didn’t make a fool of himself and post it on social media.
Q: Haha, true. Any others?
A: Swim/swam/swum works the same as drink/drank/drunk. And sometimes, the simple past tense might be different but the past participle comes back to be the same as the verb. Like in run/ran/run. “She ran a marathon” vs “she had run five marathons”.
Q: Wow, okay, I think we’re there now. Time to go back to the future. Or at least the present.
A: It was certainly very tense this week.

Do you have a grammar grizzle or punctuation problem that you’d like our Q&A to explore? We’d love to hear it. Just email us here.

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