Passed vs past: a guide for the perplexed

Posted on 30 May 2017 by Lucy Gregory

Deciding between passed and past isn’t always easy.

Problems tend to arise because their meanings overlap. And sometimes a small change in sentence structure means you need the other word. The online explanations I found are pretty confusing. Reading three or four and you’ll get the drift – but who has time for that? So my aim is for this blog to become your comprehensive guide.

The rule in a nutshell

The simplest way to choose between the two is to know that:

1) passed is a verb

2) past is a noun, adjective, adverb and preposition, but it is never a verb.

So if your sentence requires a verb, you must use passed. Try it out here (answers at the bottom of the page):

Sentence A: I ________ the 25-mile mark in the marathon in record time.

Sentence B: The _______ month has flown by.

Sentence C: From _______ experience, I know you can trust her.

Sentence D: Simon _______ Rick a folder.

Sentence E: Go ______ the pub and turn right.

Sentence F: Leaving the train station, we ________ hundreds of commuters on their way to work.

Sentence G: Commuters hurried _________ on their way to work.

Sentence H: You’re obsessed with the ______ .

If grammatical terms are your nemesis and that explanation doesn’t help, here’s another technique…

How to test your sentence

Test 1: Is your sentence written in the present, like sentences B, C, E and H above? If so, the correct word must be past.

Test 2: If your sentence is written in the past, try rewriting it in the present, using the words pass, passing or passes (depending on context). If your rewrite makes sense, use passed in your original sentence; if your rewrite doesn’t make sense, use past in your original sentence.

A few examples:

Original sentence: The meeting passed very slowly.
Revised version in the present: The meeting is passing very slowly.
(The revised version makes sense, so the original is correct.)

Original sentence: The train past through Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.
Revised sentence in the present: The train passes through Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.
(The revised version makes sense, which means the original is wrong – you need passed.)

Original sentence: Commuters hurried past on their way to work.
Revised sentence in the present: Commuters hurry pass on their way to work.
(The revised sentence doesn’t make sense, which means the original is correct – you need past.)

The grammatical lowdown

Hopefully, you’re a master of passed and past now and need no further explanation. But for those who are interested, here’s a more detailed explanation of the definitions and grammatical functions of passed and past.

‘To pass’ is a verb – it describes an action. You can use it in the present (I pass, I am passing), in the future (I will pass) and in the past (I passed, I have passed). It has many definitions:

1) Going beyond something in time, space or quantity – We have passed month end; I passed her desk; turnover passed £1m this year; the year passed slowly.

2) Dying – He’s passed away.

3) The handing over of something – He’s passed the baton of leadership.

4) Succeeding in an exam – She passed finals with flying colours.

5) Enacting a law – Last week, Parliament passed a controversial law.

6) Judging someone or pronouncing a judicial sentence – Judge Roberts passed sentence on the offender.

7) Emitting something from the body – He passed a kidney stone the size of a golf ball!

8) Missing an opportunity or turn – He passed his chance for promotion.

The word past refers to something historical or going beyond something in time, space or quantity. It takes many grammatical forms.

1) A noun (a thing) – Let’s not dredge up the past; as an historian, I love researching the past.

2) An adjective (it describes a noun) – This past month has been wonderful; from past experience, I know you can trust her; he’s the past prime minister.

When past is an adjective, it goes before the person or thing it’s describing: past month, past experience, past prime minster.

3) An adverb (it describes a verb) – He ran past; a month went past.

4) A preposition (it describes time, physical position, and going beyond a limit) – It’s half past three; my singing days are past; that cheese is past its best; he’s past retirement age; he ran past her desk; go past the pub and turn right.

Past as an adverb and preposition can be similar. As a preposition, past is followed by a noun (he ran past her desk) whereas as an adverb it’s not (he ran past).

5) A grammatical term – Do you understand the past tense or the past participle?

A: passed
B: past
C: past
D: passed
E: past
F: passed
G: past
H: past