The frequent confusion between the words passed and past is understandable. They are pronounced alike and have similar meanings. And both words derive from both a Latin noun and Latin verb! Firstly, they derive from the Latin noun: passus “step, pace.” In turn the Latin verb passare is derived from the noun meaning, “to step” or “to walk.” English then took the word from Old French passer.
Careful writers need to find some trick for remembering the difference. Often, the words past and passed are muddled. For example, consider the following:
- “The heroes past a village on their way towards the mountains.” (incorrect)
- “The heroes passed a village on their way towards the mountains.” (correct)
So, why is the first quote incorrect? Because it has no verb. You cannot have a sentence without a verb. That is basic stuff. Past is not a verb and never will be. Instead, it is an adjective, an adverb, a noun, even a preposition – but never a verb. The second sentence has a verb, passed, the past participle of the verb “To Pass”. Note that past in “past participle” in the previous sentence, is correctly used, because it is an adjective, describing the noun participle.
An easy way to tell whether you are on the right track is to rewrite the sentence in the present tense, as though you were describing something that is happening currently:
- “The heroes pass a village on their way towards the mountains.”
- “The heroes are passing a village on their way towards the mountains.”
Past would simply not make sense in either sentence. On the other hand, passed does fit (you just have to match tense in the second sentence: “are passing” becomes “had passed”.
However, if you wrote:
- “The heroes walked past a village on their way towards the mountains.”
This would be the correct to use of the word past, because the sentence has a verb, “walked”, and past is its adverb, describing the manner in which our heroes walked.
By a similar token in:
- “Travis past me during practice.”
This is wrong because again the sentence has no verb. Either write:
- “Travis passed me during practice.” or
- “Travis drove past me during practice.”
In the first sentence the verb is passed; in the second, the verb is drove, where past describes the verb.
Difference between Passed and Past
Here are some phrases (correct, I may say) demonstrating the difference between the two forms of the words we are talking about:
- Passed away
- Passed a test
- Past a date
- Past its sell by date
- Past caring
- Past few years
- Past midnight
- The past weekend
- Run past
- See past
We will pull a few of these phrases out to see how they fit the rules:
- He passed (verb) the test.
- The food is (verb) past (adverb) its sell by date.
- This past (adjective) few years I have been struggling (verb) with life.
Confusion also arises because sometimes both versions are possible:
- It is past the deadline.
- You have passed the deadline.
- You are past the point of no return.
- You have passed the point of no return.
- Move past the finish line.
- They passed the finish line.
- It is past your bedtime
- You have passed your bedtime
In each case in 1, 3, 5 and 7 past describes a verb: “is”, “are”, and “move”. In the other examples, passed is correctly used as a verb.
Passed – a verb in the past tense
As we have said, the form passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass”.
To pass – meaning to proceed, move forward, depart; to cause to do this. This can refer to movement forwards in time, in space, or in life (such as “to pass an examination”). Here are a few examples using passed – meaning, to be successful; to move past, to hand over.
- She passed the exam with distinction. (In this example, to pass = to be successful in a test)
- The operator has already passed the note to the typist. (In this example, to pass = to hand over).
- The lion passed the zebra without so much as a glance. (In this example, to pass = to move past)
To pass can be an intransitive verb (one that does not require an object) or a transitive verb (one that requires both a subject and one or more objects). For example:
- “The weeks passed quickly.” (Intransitive: subject “the weeks” and no object).
- “I passed all my exams!” (Transitive: subject “I” and object “my exams”.)
- “He passed the ball well during the match earlier.” (Transitive: subject “He” and object “the ball”.)
Incidentally, the intransitive form of pass is also used as a euphemism for “die,” as in, “When did your father pass?”
“Passed” is a verb and is used to describe movement. If there is no movement there is no passed. If you need a noun, adjective, adverb or preposition then you need past.
To pass often means to move past, and this is where confusion can arise. Of note, to pass can also mean to sail past, to fly past, to run past, to hop past, etc. – the method of moving is irrelevant. This is worth bearing in mind because if you have used a verb indicating motion already (sail, fly, run, hop), then it will be partnered with past and not passed.
The many faces of “Past”
Past can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a noun or a preposition – as we have said. But never as a verb. Past has several meanings, usually related to time before the present or to indicate movement from one side of a reference point to the other side. 1] This past year. 2] Alan ran past. 3] That’s in the past. 4] Don’t go past the gate. Compare these two sets of sentences:
- The lion passed the zebra without so much as a glance.
- The lion wandered past the zebra without so much as a glance.
- The Harrier passed at an altitude of 100 feet.
- The Harrier flew past at an altitude of 100 feet.
Can you see the difference? The verbs are passed, wandered, passed and flew respectively. In sentence two and three the verbs have an adverb, past.
“Past” as an adjective
As an adjective, past denotes time before the present: bygone, elapsed; done with. For example:
- “The days for mourning are now past.”
When attributed to a group of people, past can also mean: having served one’s term of office, in time already passed. For example:
- “All past presidents of the United States were male.”
- “This past year has been difficult for the recruiters.”
- “She loves to tell us about past dance competitions in the hall.”
- “Don’t hold grudges for past offences.”
“Past” as an adverb
As an adverb past means beyond or denotes movement from one side of a reference point to the other:
- “The ball sped past the goalkeeper.”
- “I thought he would stop, but he just ran past.”
In each case, the verbs are “sped” and “ran”. In each case “past” is an adverb.
“Past” as a noun
As a noun past means the time before the present; in time that has gone by:
- “In the past, standards were higher.”
- “We cannot live in the past.”
- “That’s all in the past.”
- “Can you dig into his past?”
“Past” as a preposition
As a preposition past means beyond in time; after; beyond the age of; after a particular hour:
- “It is almost half past five.”
It can also be used for location where it means beyond in place; further on than; at or on the further side of:
- “My house is the one just past the turning.”
- “How does the food always get past the bib?”
Unusual uses of the word “passed”
Most of the time, passed is a verb, as described above. There are a few occasions, however, when it can be used as a noun or an adjective. For example:
- “Don’t speak ill of the passed.” (noun). This comes from the phrase “passed-away”.
- “A passed pawn.” (adjective). The term used in chess.
- “A passed ball.” (adjective). A term used in baseball.
- “A passed fireman.” (adjective). Someone who has passed a period of instruction and qualified through examination – apparently this usage arose in the navy.
By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar
Last updated: Friday, 17 April 2020