What’s the Diff? Past vs. Passed

A quick visit from your friendly neighborhood grammarian, here today to explain an easy mistake that spellcheck won’t discover!

Past vs. Passed

As with many homophones–words that sound the same but mean different things and are spelled differently–it’s easy for your brain to say “past” and your fingers to helpfully write “passed.”

Quick reminder: Past means “things that happened before” (as in not the present nor the future); or nearby, as in “beyond”; or sometimes, “to be on the further side of”

Passed, on the other hand, can mean the opposite of failing on a test; the past tense of “to pass,” as in “to have gone by previously”

The definition you want will help make it clear which of the two you need.


He passed his very important test. He was glad it was now in his past. In the first part, he did not fail the test, but got good marks (passed). The second sentence is about when the test took place; it is no longer in the future or the present (past).

Joanna walked past Betsy, refusing even to look at her; she passed her right by. Betsy, in return, looked right past Joanna.
Joanna walked on the other side of (past) Betsy, and she did it previously (she passed), so that sentence needs both words. Betsy uses a different meaning to look beyond (past), rather than at, Joanna.

Moving from the future into the past, time passed.
This might seem tricky, because both uses involve time, but it’s not so bad. The name we use for time that has already happened (the past) is the place that time, as a noun–that is, as a thing–is moving toward, so in this case it went by previously (passed).


So when you’re looking at a statement like “The black cat walked ____ Bryce,” how do you know which to use?

Look at the definitions, and try to fit one in.
-thing that happened before (past)
-nearby (past)
-to the other side of (past)
-to pass a test (passed)
-went by previously (passed)

“The black cat walked nearby Bryce.” The word you need is therefore past.

If the sentence were instead “The orange cat _____ Bryce,” the word “nearby” no longer fits. Now, “went by previously” is a better fit–“The orange cat previously went by Bryce.” That orange cat just passed him.


This can be tricky because your spellcheck won’t pick up on this mistake, so look over your text carefully to figure out which word you really need.

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