Easily Confused Words: Past vs. Passed

Past and passed are easily confused words. They are also homophones, meaning they sound the same, but have different meanings and different spellings.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It suggests what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions couldn’t be more off base and produces humorous results.

Past (pronounced “pah-st” or “pehst”; short “a” is US-style) has multiple meanings.

  • As an adjective. It describes events, people and places that belong to a timeframe that’s already happened. It can also describe the state of being gone, spent, or over.
  • As a noun, it refers to the period of someone’s life that has transpired. It can also refer to an event or events that a person is embarrassed or emotional about, and doesn’t want to talk about. On Downton Abbey, the eldest daughter Mary is surprised when they encounter one of the Dowager’s old lovers. “My, Granny has a past!” she says.

Passed (pronounced “pehssd”) is the past tense form of the verb pass. To pass means one object goes by another object or objects. If a person passes on an opportunity, they decline to participate.

When football players “make a pass”, one player successfully gets the ball to their teammates without being intercepted by rival teammates.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Petra was a successful company president for fifteen years. When she was approached by authors about her rags to riches biography, she passed on the opportunity. She always said the same thing, that she wanted to leave the past in the past. 

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