Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Past or passed?

with 7 comments

I'm so adjective, I verb nouns.
Image by louisa_catlover via Flickr

Sometimes the words ‘past’ and ‘passed’ are confused. To understand the difference, we’ll first look at ‘past’ and ‘pass’.


Past is an adjective(or ‘describing’ word) meaning gone by in time and no longer existing. For example:

  • The danger is now past.
  •  Past attempts to win had failed.
  •  I enjoyed the past 12 months.

Past is also a noun(the name of something) meaning a previous time.  For example:

  • The past is a mystery to me.
  •  In the past, women were not allowed to vote.


Pass can also be a noun meaning, for example, the name of a document, a qualification or a route through mountains. For example:

  •  I will need a bus pass.
  •  I got a pass in the music exam.
  •  I will take the pass through the mountains.

However, and most importantly in relation to the past/passed conundrum, is the fact that ‘pass’ is also a verb (or ‘action’ word) meaning to move in a particular direction. For example:

  • Please pass the salt.
  • Aeroplanes pass by overhead.
  • They will pass through many towns on their way home.

Past or passed?

‘Past’ can only be used as an adjective or a noun, as explained above.

However, as a verb, ‘pass’ becomes ‘passed’ to show that something has already happened (the past tense). For example:

  • She passed the salt.
  • Aeroplanes passed by overhead.
  • They passed through many towns on their way home.

7 Responses

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  1. There are quite a number of these -st -ssed words, and similarly with -lt and -lled.. The problem is that the choice of their spelling and pronunciation doesn’t follow any rule ; you just have to learn each one separately. To make things worse, the past tense of ‘spell’ is “spelled” in the USA and “spelt” in Britain!


    20/04/2010 at 8:43 am

    • Yes — very true. I think that ‘passed’ may be slightly easier to deal with if it’s thought through logically, as I tried to do in the post above. But you’re right: some things just have to be learnt (or learned!).


      20/04/2010 at 8:58 am

  2. I see this a lot: “I cut and paste it into a document, then printed it.” “Cut” is the same in present or past tense, but the past of “paste” is “pasted.”

    Michael Farrell

    20/04/2010 at 2:23 pm

    • That’s an interesting segue from pass to past to paste to pasted! A good point, though. Thanks.


      20/04/2010 at 2:52 pm

      • I’m suffering from caffeine withdrawal. Not thinking linearly.

        Michael Farrell

        20/04/2010 at 3:02 pm

  3. Excerpted for your amusement:

    “She stood in the pale, translucent light on the Persian carpet. A minute passed. Then another. Then, another minute. A further minute passed quickly, followed by another minute, when suddenly, a different minute passed, followed by another different minute. And another. I glanced at my watch. It was a minute past. This was it. I waited a minute while a minute passed quickly past. And then, a minute which seemed to last an hour but was only a minute… passed.”
    — from Monty Python’s “A Minute Passed”

    Invisible Mikey

    21/04/2010 at 1:40 am

    • Thanks, Mikey — all amusement on a blog about grammar is more than welcome!


      21/04/2010 at 6:07 am

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