Past vs Passed—Which One’s Right?

There are a number of pairs of words that are easily confused such as loose and lose (that extra “o” always seems to sneak in when I’m not looking, right Steve?), the proper use of lay and lie offers its own challenge and mistaking stared for starred can be easy enough to do.  I did a post back in 2012 on the subject of confusing word pairs but in that post I failed to include one pair that, for some reason, has recently begun to vex me a bit. The more I think about the two words, the more confused I get. So I did a little research and found the answer to the question: “When should I use the word ‘past’ and when should I use the word ‘passed?’

past-passed clock
‘Past’ is related to time and sometimes space. It can be a noun meaning a time existing before the present as in: what is past is prologue or that is all in the past. It can also be used as  a preposition meaning beyond in time or meaning beyond in place as in: it was half past midnight, a time when nothing good happens (time) or take a left just past the Exxon station (place). The adverb form of ‘past’ means to move beyond in motion as in: a drunk cycle currier sped dangerously past the old lady nearly knocking her from her crutches. 

So other than when used as a noun (as in living in the past), if you can rewrite the sentence with a form of the word beyond then ‘past’ is probably your word.  It was thirty minutes beyond midnight. Take a left just beyond the Exxon station. The cycle currier sped beyond the old lady.  You get the idea.

‘Passed’ is the past-tense of ‘pass’ (say that three times as fast as you can). If you can rewrite the sentence in the present-tense using the word ‘pass,’ then ‘passed’ is the proper candidate for the job.

She finally passed out which made for a more pleasant evening (She was about to pass out)

Eric passed their son’s question on to his wife to field (Eric had plans to pass their son’s question along).

Confusing Past and Passed
It can get a little confusing when writing about the passage of time. If there is the passing of an hour do you write, “an hour passed” or “an hour past?” Well, the answer depends on the context. The hour passed slowly would be correct as would be the past hour had been interminable. Other confusion arrises in a sentence such as: The teenagers, no longer filled with bravado, picked up their pace as they passed the graveyard. Add the word “jogged” and you need to change the sentence to: The teenagers, no longer filled with bravado, picked up their pace as they jogged past the graveyard. Past needs to be used in the second instance because it is used as an adverb meaning ‘beyond.’

The English language is rich and varied as well as rife with rules and exceptions. ‘Past’ deals with time or generally means beyond whereas ‘passed’ is the aftermath of pass. I hope this little grammar lesson helps to lift the fog surrounding the use of past and passed.

Question: What pair of words consistently gives you fits?


12 comments on “Past vs Passed—Which One’s Right?

  1. aah, the fog is lifting… (I have in the past suffered a pain every time I see those words misused–and I’m sure I’m not immune to abusing the rule. ) So let’s see if I understand… To test me out i shall submit this:

    At half past midnight he rode his motorcycle across town. It was just past the Exxon station that he passed the dark sedan parked by the side of the road. He felt his past catching up with him and he raced on in a purple haze. Oh Oh, purple is the prompt for Five sentence Fiction. I’m getting confused here. Uuh..he raced on turning onto a side street and soared past the graveyard. He about passed out when the dark sedan raced up behind him.

  2. […] words ‘past and passed’ that were the subject of a little instructional blog over at Andy’s Words and Pictures.  Actually it was a reply to him that inspired this.  I changed it  a bit to fit the five […]

  3. Bravo! She’s got it, she’s got it. By Jove, I think she’s got it. but I think I counted 7 sentences. You passed the limit. Wait, or should that be you went past the limit. Passed? Past? Anyway you ended up with more than 5 sentences. Great recap! A tour de force (sp?)!

  4. I’m pist at myself for confusing these.

  5. four years later: I’m clapping while jumping up & down saying “do it again, do it again!!!” over here. I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t want it to stop. I would have added my own little bit of fun but it’s Friday and there is no juice left in this noggin. 🙂

Leave a Reply to BusRider Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: