Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
I’m nostalgic for the past. I collect vinyl records and listen to them on my vintage turntable. I live in a house that was built in 1890. I write a newspaper column, which is something at this point I’ll have to explain to my grandkids from our colony on Mars. I’m a 30-something with the soul of an octogenarian. I have a hard time admitting the past has passed.
The words “past” and “passed” are easier to get mixed up than a set of identical twins on school picture day. Their meanings are related, and we don’t want to look dumb by confusing the two.
Past can be an adjective, noun, adverb and a preposition. Its meaning almost always refers to something that happened before the present time. For example: In the past, MTV played actual music videos. Over the past 12 months, an entire year has gone by. The time is a quarter past four. These uses of past all point to a time that happened prior to the present.
Passed is a verb that is the past participle of the word “pass.” It means to move ahead or proceed. For example: In his career, Peyton Manning passed for 539 touchdowns, an NFL record. Congress passed no legislation last week. You get the idea.
Here’s where things get confusing. You could correctly write, “I somehow passed the elephant without seeing him.” You could also correctly write, “I somehow walked past the elephant without seeing him.” The only difference in these two sentences is the word “walked.” As a rule of thumb, use “past” whenever your sentence already includes an active verb like “walked.”
Sometimes “passed” trips us up when it’s not used as an active verb. For instance: Time has passed since we last met. He passed away. The local taco restaurant has finally passed its health inspection. Passed doesn’t always indicate literal movement.
Past almost always deals with time. Passed almost always deals with movement. The easiest way to remember this is that past is a shorter word than passed, and time is a shorter word than movement. I just need to make sure I don’t get completely left in the past.