Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Passing the Past Parcel

Liza from Brighton sent in this plea for help: No matter how hard I try, I just cannot get to grips with when I should use passed and when I should use past. Is there an easy way to remember?

This is something that many writers have difficulty getting right. The way I deal with it is to determine whether the context requires a verb or another part of speech. If you decide the sentence needs a verb, then you can only use ‘passed’ (apart from this exception, to be past it, which is colloquial usage, meaning old or no longer of use).

They passed the time by sleeping.
The ball passed over their heads.
I passed the house on my way to the bank.

Remember this: if you use any form of the verb ‘to have’ then it will always be followed by ‘passed’ and NEVER by ‘past’.

I have passed my exams.
He has passed his driving test.

For all other parts of speech you should use past.

As an adjective: I’ve been waiting for news for the past week. (‘Week’ is a noun and ‘past’ is an adjective modifying the noun.)
As a noun: It happened in the past. (‘The past’ is a noun.)
As an adverb: He hurried past. (The verb is ‘hurried’ and ‘past’ in this sentence is an adverb.)
As a preposition: He hurried past the house. (Because there is an object [the house] after ‘past’, it is a preposition and not an adverb, but the effect is the same and knowing the parts of speech doesn’t change the fact that you use ‘past’.)


  1. Really useful post. I think something else worth pointing out is some writers' tendency to use 'past' when not needed or superfluous. Eg: "I have been a writer for the past ten years". Am sure I've done this lots of times too, but even something like "It happened in the past" could arguably fall into this category. It could hardly have happened in the present or future, could it? ;-)

  2. Thanks, Alex. It seems to be one of those areas that people instinctively get right, or really struggle with. I agree with you, though, about the unnecessary use of the word when the meaning is already obvious.

    Anyone reading this should check out Alex's great blog:

  3. Am now much amused at my 'not needed or superfluous' - one of which was probably not needed and/or superfluous...

    Thanks for the plug, Lorraine! Must get around to a new mistake...