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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Past simple and Past participle verbs - What’s the difference?

When we work with tenses and verb forms, students can easily get confused between the different uses of verbs ending with -ed. The -ed ending is how regular verbs are formed in the past simple tense, but regular verbs also take -ed endings to form past participles, a very different verb form that looks identical to a past simple form.

We find -ed endings on verbs in past tenses, conditional sentences, present perfect tenses, adjectives formed from verbs… Some of these are past simple verbs and some of them are past participles, so how do we tell the difference between past , and why?

What is a past participle?

The past participle is the ‘third form’ of a verb. In verb tables, often used to study irregular verbs, the three forms are presented to help students remember them, for example:

Speak - spoke - spoken

catch - caught - caught

come - came - come

eat - ate - eaten

In these examples, ‘spoken’, ‘caught’, ‘come’ and ‘eaten’ are past participles. The second form of the verb (‘spoke’, ‘caught’ and ‘came’ are past simple forms, and the first forms are infinitive verbs (the base form of the verb with no ending or other change made due to their grammar).

Regular verbs also have the same three forms, though both the past simple and past participle forms have -ed endings, as in:

believe - believed - believed

touch - touched - touched

talk - talked - talked

So how do we know whether a verb with an -ed ending is a past simple form or a past participle? For example, in the following sentences, how can we show whether the -ed forms are past simple verbs or past participles?

He talked to his friend about the weather

He has never touched a panda

This phone was believed to be the best in the world

The substitution test

As we have seen, irregular verbs often have different past simple and past participle forms, so these make effective markers to test against regular verbs. By substituting an irregular verb whose past simple and past participle forms are different for a regular one in the same position, it is quickly clear whether it is a past simple or past participle form. For example, which of the following substitutions are grammatically correct?

He talked to his friend about the weather

(Substitute ‘talk’ for ‘speak’)

—> He spoke to his friend

—> He spoken to his friend

He has never touched an insect

(Substitute ‘touch’ for ‘eat’)

—> He has never ate

—> He has never eaten

This phone was believed to be the best in the world

(Substitute ‘believe’ for ‘forget’)

—> This phone was forgot

—> This phone was forgotten

Knowing the second and third forms of the verbs ‘speak’, eat’ and ‘forget’ will reveal that the first sentence, above, is in the past simple (speak- spoke - spoken), the second is a past participle (eat - ate - eaten; used in the present perfect tense) and the third is also a past participle (forget - forgot - forgotten; used in the passive voice).

Simple! So the next time you need to show the form of an -ed ending, take your students through the process of substitution and they will have a tool to recognise these forms easily for themselves.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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