When To Use “Passed” vs. “Past” (And Other Commonly Confused Homophones)

Tuesday, November 223 min read

There are so many sets of words that are easy to mix up, especially in writing. If you’re talking to a friend in person, they won’t notice which version of “there,” “their,” or “they’re” you use — but using the wrong one might change the meaning of an email. In English, homophones are sets of two or more words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings and spellings. Sometimes, the words even come from different parts of speech. That’s the case with “cell” (a noun) and “sell” (a verb). Or “him” (a pronoun) and “hymn” (a noun).

Past vs. Passed

It’s also the situation with “past” and “passed,” an extremely confusing homophone pair. The word “past” typically refers to things that happened long ago. This versatile term can be an adjective, noun, preposition, or adverb, depending on the context.

In the past, we exchanged gifts.

The car drove past the house.

It’s a quarter past nine.

“Passed,” on the other hand, is a form of the verb “pass.” It’s quite a useful and multi-functional verb: it can describe a movement in a particular direction, or a change in a state of being. It can also be used to describe handing off objects, or the passage of time, for example. In an official sense, “passed” means a judgment or proposal was approved or put into effect. It could also mean an opportunity was turned down, as in, “I passed on the offer.”

In all the ways “passed” can show it, it’s important to remember that it only ever appears as a verb.

I passed my test last week.

Joe passed Steve the ball during the game.

The new law was passed.

It seems tricky, but “passed” only works as a verb, because it is a form of the verb “pass.” So, depending on the verb tense, it can become “passes” or “passing,” too. However, “past” is not a verb, so it cannot change forms. It always stays the same — kind of like the actual past.

If you’re struggling to decide which to use, remember “passed” can change forms, and “past” cannot. If changing the sentence to present tense doesn’t work, then “past” is the right word.  For example, "The car drives pass the house" doesn't work, so the correct word is "past." But "Joe passes Steve the ball" does work, so "passed" is correct.

Even More Homophones

“Past” and “passed” are not the only homophones mixing up parts of speech. Here’s a list of commonly confused homophones swapping from noun to verb, adjective to pronoun, and everything in between.

Our vs. Hour

  • Our (determiner): Indicating one or more people. (“It’s our house.”)
  • Hour (noun): Period equal to 60 minutes. (“We’ve been at the house an hour.”)

Buy vs. By

  • Buy (verb): Obtain in exchange for payment. (“Let’s buy apples.”)
  • By (preposition): Showing location. (“Put the apples by me.”)

Bare vs. Bear

  • Bear (verb): To carry something. (“I will bear the heavy knapsack to the campsite.”)
  • Bare (adjective): Unclothed. (“Look how tan my bare arms got while I hiked to the campsite.”)

Eye vs. I

  • Eye (noun): Visual or light-detecting organ. (“My eyes are blue.”)
  • I (pronoun): Used by a speaker to refer to themselves. (“I need glasses.”)

Grate vs. Great

  • Grate (verb): Reduce or shred. (“I will grate the cheese.”)
  • Great (adjective): Well above the normal or average. (“This cheese tastes great.”)

Hear vs. Here

  • Here (adverb): Showing location. (“The girl is over here.”)
  • Hear (verb): Perceive with the ear. (“We couldn’t hear her calling.”)

Know vs. No

  • Know (verb): To be aware of. (“I know all about hedgehogs.”)
  • No (exclamation): Used as a negative response. (“No, you don’t have enough hedgehog experience for the job.”)

Marry vs. Merry

  • Marry (verb): Join in marriage. (“Will you marry me?”)
  • Merry (adjective): Cheerful and lively. (“Their wedding was a merry occasion.”)

Red vs. Read

  • Red (adjective): Of a color at the end of the spectrum next to orange and opposite violet, as of blood, fire, or rubies. (“This book is red.”)
  • Read (verb): Comprehend written material. (“I read this book.”)

Sea vs. See

  • Sea (noun): The expanse of salt water that covers most of the Earth's surface.  (“There are dolphins in the sea.”)
  • See (verb): Perceive with the eyes. (“You can see the dolphins.”)

Vein vs. Vain

  • Vein (noun): Tubes forming the circulation cycle of the body. (“They took blood from a vein in my arm.”)
  • Vain (adjective): A high opinion of one’s self. (“He was vain because of his muscular arms.”)

Wear vs. Where

  • Wear (verb): Have on one's body or a part of one's body as clothing, decoration, protection, or for some other purpose. (“I decided to wear my purple hat.”)
  • Where (adverb): In a place or direction. (“Where did you get that purple hat?”)

Featured image credit: Sneksy/ iStock

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