Past vs. passed?

The word passed is the past-tense form of the verb ‘to pass.’ In contrast, the word past is an adjective, adverb, noun, or preposition that generally conveys time or distance, not an action.

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What is the difference between past vs. passed?

No matter how long you’ve studied the English Language, certain words or phrases “slip past” you long enough until, one day, you ask, “is it passed or past?” If you’ve found yourself in a similar existential quandary involving pass vs. past, you’ve come to the right place (and, for the record, it’s “slip past”). 

Passed is a verb, past is not

Passed is the past tense form of the verb “to pass,” which means ‘go by’ or ‘move past’ something. But unlike “passed,” the word past is not a verb. The term past is an adjective, adverb, preposition, or noun that we use to describe how or where objects and actions existed at an earlier time. 

So, if we use words like “past” after a verb, we are essentially describing where an object moved in relation to something else. This is how most verbal phrases like “get past” or “past due” function. If we use a verb with another verb like “slip passed,” it’s fairly obvious that we’ve made a grammatical mistake. After all, we don’t “swim kick” or “eat drink,” right? 

Past and passed are homophones

There are several reasons why both native and non-native English writers mistake these tricky words. To start, past and passed are homophones, which means they sound similar but have different meanings. Additionally, passed and past each describe past objects and actions because they are related to the same verb, ‘to pass.’ 

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, past is a Middle English variant of passed, the past participle of the verb pass. The word pass is a Middle English verb that originated in Old French with ‘passer’ and Latin ‘passus’ for “pace” (Chantrell 365). 

As we can see, both terms are similar in how they describe former states, but we use either word very differently, nonetheless: 

  • The word past locates objects and actions that existed before the present moment. 
  • The word passed describes the movement or action of objects and actions that previously occurred. 

What does past mean?

The word past is an adjective, adverb, noun, and preposition that we use to locate sentence objects in time and space. To use the word past correctly, the location of such elements must exist in a former, past time. 

Past as an adjective

As an adjective, we use the word past to describe something as:

  1. Absent over time, no longer present, or “over and done with.” 
    “The time is now past.” 
  2. Antiquated or belonging to a previous period of time. 
    “The past principal of the school.” 
  3. An action that occurred or something that once existed. 
    “A lot has changed over the past year.” 

Adjective synonyms

Ancient, bygone, defunct, earlier, erstwhile, extinct, former, last, late, latter, old, over, previous, recent, was. 

Past as an adverb

We use the adverb form of past to describe how something passes from one side to another, or to indicate the passage of time. For example,

The soft air drifted past us.”
“The time flew past them.” 

Adverb synonyms

Along, by, on. 

Past as a noun

The noun form of past typically refers to “the past,” or a moment in time that already occurred before the present. In this case, we use “past” to describe the formal history of something, but it’s important to note how “past” may informally reference a shameful past, as well. For example,

“Learn about the museum’s incredible past” vs. “She has an interesting past.” 

Noun synonyms

Background, biography, date, experience, formerly, history, life, previously.

Past as a preposition

The prepositional form of past introduces spatial awareness to sentence objects. In this case, we can use “past” as a preposition to indicate how something exists:

  1. Further beyond, to the side, from one side of, or to the far side of something. 
    “Let’s ride past the border.”
  2. In front of something.
    “She drove past the mailboxes.” 
  3. Later than one time or beyond a date. 
    “Right now, it’s eleven past noon.”
  4. Beyond the means of capability or the limits and scope of something. 
    “They’re past the point of return.” 

Preposition synonyms

Along, across, between, beyond, by, down, in front of, to the side of, via. 

What does passed mean?

The word passed is the past participle form of the verb “to pass.” We can use the word pass as a transitive or intransitive verb to mean “to go by,” “leave behind,” “transfer,” or “proceed” toward a direction. However, the verb passed carries several connotations that are not always intuitive. 

Let’s take a look at the most common definitions for passed as the past tense form of the verb pass:

  1. To move in a specific direction in relation to something else.
    “The birds passed by overhead.”
  2. To transfer or hand over an object.
    Dad passed the car title on to me.” 
    “The children passed out invitations.”
    “He passed the mashed potatoes.”
  3. To travel beyond a location or leave something behind. 
    “We passed the store on the way into town.”
  4. To die or “pass away.” 
    “His grandpa passed away.” 
  5. To surpass, exceed, or travel beyond the limits of something. 
    “The performance passed my expectations.”
  6. To accomplish something or achieve a benchmark. 
    “She passed the class.”
  7. The passage of time. 
    “The time has passed us by.”
  8. The end of an event, moment, or feeling. 
    “The sadness has passed.”
  9. To accept, approve, or enact legal action. 
    “The bill passed in the Senate.” 
  10. To circulate money.
    “The criminal passed counterfeit checks to secret shoppers.”
  11. To reject something. 
    “I think I’ll pass on the offer, thank you.”

How to use the verb pass in a sentence?

The verb pass is one of the most commonly confused words in the English language for a reason: the verb forms are all over the place. Remember how passed is the past tense of the verb pass? Well, there are also circumstances when we can use passed for the future and present tenses, too. 

To understand how this is possible, let’s break down the verb pass into its many forms: pass, passed, and passing.

When to use pass in a sentence?

The word pass or passes is the simple present tense form of the verb ‘to pass.’ For example, 

“I pass by frequently.”
“She passes by frequently.” 

We can also use ‘pass’ for the future tense with “will pass,” but make sure to avoid changing pass to passes for the “she,” “he,” or “it” pronouns. 

“They will pass by.”
“This will pass shortly.” 

When to use passed in a sentence?

We use passed as the simple past tense form of pass, but we also use passed for the present, future, and past perfect tenses. For example, 

Simple past tense: “You passed the test.”
Present perfect tense: “You have passed the test.” or
“She has passed the test.” 
Future perfect tense: “You will have passed the test by then.”
Past perfect: “They had passed the test by then.”

When to use passing in a sentence?

We use “passing” for all present, past, and future continuous tenses to indicate continual movement. For example,

Present continuous: “I am passing by.” 
“You are passing by.” 
“It is passing by.” 
Present perfect cont.: “I have been passing by.”
“He has been passing by.” 

Past continuous: “I was passing by.”
“You were passing by.” 
Past perfect cont.: “You had been passing by.”

Future continuous: “We will be passing by.”
Future perfect cont.: “They will have been passing by.” 

How to use past vs. passed in a sentence?

Now that we understand how to write the verb pass in multiple tense forms, it’s time to compare examples of past vs. passed. But before we get started, it’s important to remember how the words past and passed are not the same:

  • Past locates previous objects or actions in space and time. 
  • Passed references the movement of activities that have previously occurred or began. 

Try to determine the right words for the following sentences: past or passed?

“Barack Obama is a ______ (past/passed) President of the United States.” 

Correct: “Barack Obama is a past President of the United States.”
Incorrect: “Barack Obama is a passed President of the United States.”

The first sentence is correct because the adjective “past” describes Barack Obama’s official title as a former entity. The second sentence is incorrect because it infers that Obama was passed along to something. 

“You shall not _______ (past/pass)!” 

Correct: “You shall not pass!”
Incorrect: “You shall not past!” 

The famous Lord of the Rings quote may be a dead giveaway, but it clearly shows how past and passed have very different meanings. The first sentence is correct because “pass” refers to the movement forward (or the denial of such). The second sentence doesn’t make sense because “past” is not a verb. 

“Your dog _______ (past/pass) away during a _______ (past/pass) weekend.”

Correct: “Your dog passed away during a past weekend.”
Incorrect: “Your dog past away during a passed weekend.”

The first sentence is correct because the word “passed” infers the passage of life (aka death), while “past” references the time in which the death occurred. Similar to the previous example, the second sentence is incorrect because “past” is not an action. 

Test Yourself!

You can pass a test or get past a challenge, but how well can you use “pass” and “past” on your own? See how much you’ve learned about past vs. passed with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. Which term is the past participle of the verb pass? 
    a. Past
    b. Passed
    c. Passes
    d. Passing
  2. Which is not a form of the word past? 
    a. Adjective
    b. Noun
    c. Verb
    d. Adverb
  3. Which of the following terms is the simple present tense form of the verb pass? 
    a. Pass
    b. Passes
    c. Passing
    d. A and B
  4. “I’ve learned a lot over the _________ year.”
    a. Passed
    b. Pass
    c. Past
    d. None of the above
  5. “It’s about time that we move _______ the drama.” 
    a. Past
    b. Pass
    c. Passed
    d. Passes

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. D
  4. C
  5. A

Sources

  1. Chantrell, Glynnis. “Past.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 365. 
  2. Get past.” Macmillan Dictionary, Macmillan Education Limited, 2020. 
  3. Pass.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  4. Pass.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.
  5. Past.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  6. Past.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  7. Past Due.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.