Flash Card: Remembrance of Things Past

ProustMy sister has a problem with "passed" and "past."

She recently commented thus on a Facebook post about the current flu outbreak: "When I flew this passed week, I wore a mask! I was mortified, but I can't remember the last time I flew and didn't get a cold, and I'm sick of it!" (I really wish I'd seen her in that mask.)

I figured this "passed"/"past" confusion was just one of Sis's quirks. It's not like she was mixing up "compliment" and "complement," an extremely common error. But then I saw this in the Los Angeles Times:

"While it's possible that [Judd] Apatow may have delivered his 'Citizen Kane' with 'This Is 40,' its 134-minute running time points to his Achilles' heel as a filmmaker – not knowing when to say 'cut.' '40-Year-Old Virgin' was a comparatively brisk 116 minutes, but all his films since have steadily cruised passed two hours."

Of course the writer meant "but all his films since have steadily cruised past two hours." (That he mentioned "This Is 40" in the same breath as "Citizen Kane" is almost as bad.)

I understand why my sister and this writer are flummoxed by these homonyms; they do seem to be related. Merriam-Webster.com says this of the origin of "pass": "Middle English, from Anglo-French passer, from Vulgar Latin passare, from Latin passus step – more at pace." And this is what it says about the origin of "past": "Middle English, from past participle of passen to pass."

"Passed" is the past participle of the verb "to pass," as in "He passed an Indian on the highway." To remember when to use "passed" and when to use "past," all you need to know is that "passed" is a verb form; it describes an action.

"Past," on the other hand, is a veritable hydra of speech parts; it can be an adjective, a preposition, a noun or an adverb. Here are some handy examples of each from M-W.com.

Adjective: She was hired based on her past experience in sales.
Preposition: We drove past the house.
Noun: Past, present, and future are all linked together.
Adverb: Several weeks went past before we heard from her.

But you don't really need to know any of that; you just need to remember that "passed" is a verb.

If you find yourself writing "He past an Indian on the highway," and you need to figure out if it really should be "He passed an Indian on the highway," you can do what Ali Hale suggests on DailyWritingTips.com: "Rewrite the sentence in the present tense, as though you're describing something [that] is happening currently," i.e. "He passes an Indian on the highway" or "He's passing an Indian on the highway."

If you can, in fact, rewrite the sentence in the present tense, then what appears in that sentence is clearly a verb – thus "passed" is correct, not "past." (This rewriting of the sentence in the present tense is similar to how I "do the math" to determine if I should use "who" or "whom.")

You just need to remember that "passed" is a verb.

So if you can remember that "passed" is a verb, and you can see that the word in question is acting as a verb in the sentence at hand, then you know "passed" is correct; if the word is NOT acting as a verb, you know "past" is correct.

And because English grammar just wouldn't be English grammar without some exceptions, "There are a few occasions when [passed] can be used as a noun or an adjective," Hale warns. "For example: 'Don't speak ill of the passed' (noun); 'a passed ball' (adjective)." But these uses of "passed" are so obscure that I suggest you forget all about them and focus solely on the verb thing.

Now that we've passed this time together, I do hope we can leave this "passed"/"past" problem in the past.