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Eaten or Ate: Past Tense vs. Past Participle

When learning to speak any language, tenses are very important because they allow you to describe the timing of an event. When talking about the past in all its various forms, there are specific details to master, and the verb “to eat” is an interesting case in point.

“Ate” is the simple past tense of the verb “to eat,” describing a completed action. “Eaten” is a past participle, which we usually combine with “have” or “be” to create the present, past, or future perfect tense and to express that eating was completed or will be completed before another event or a specific time.

In this article, we’ll explore past tenses and the use of past participles. We’ll also discuss how to know when to use the various forms.

Is It “Have You Ate” or “Have You Eaten”? 

Although we sometimes hear it in conversation, the former is grammatically incorrect. “Ate” is the past tense of the verb “to eat” and can stand on its own without the need for an auxiliary verb such as “to have.” One should always say, “Have you eaten?”

The examples below show the correct use of “ate,” where it is always in the simple past tense.

I ate breakfast very early this morning. 

They ate dinner before going to the show.

She ate a chocolate bar while waiting for the shop to open.

Is it true that Danny ate a worm?

“Eaten,” on the other hand, is a past participle and cannot stand on its own — except when serving as an adjective. Therefore, it needs the assistance of an auxiliary verb. 

The example sentences below show the correct use of “eaten” with a variety of different tenses.

I have eaten octopus once in my life. (present perfect)

She will have eaten the whole pizza if I don’t get there quickly. (future perfect)

He had eaten my dessert before I returned to the table. (past perfect)

Have you eaten dinner yet? (present perfect)

Constructing Questions

Image by Emily Morter via Unsplash

In considering whether it’s correct to say “Have you ate?” or “Have you eaten?”, it’s important to know how to construct questions when using simple past tense and past participles.

Questions using “Ate”

For the examples used above for “ate,” the following questions would be appropriate.

When did you eat breakfast today? 

I ate breakfast very early this morning. 

When did they eat dinner?

They ate dinner before going to the show.

What did she eat while waiting for the shop to open?

She ate a chocolate bar while waiting for the shop to open.

To use “ate” in the question, you would have to precede the statement by a questioning phrase, as in the examples below. 

Is it true that Danny ate a worm?

Will he believe that Danny ate a worm?

Isn’t it crazy that Danny ate a worm?

Questions using “Eaten”

Unlike past simple, we regularly use past participles in the construction of questions, and there are rules for how to do this.

Yes/No Questions

When creating questions in perfect tenses that we can answer with a “yes” or “no,” the formula follows the basic construction below:

auxiliary verbsubjectpast participlerest of sentence?

Have you eaten supper yet? (present perfect)

Yes, I have eaten supper

Had she eaten sushi before? (past perfect)

No, she had never eaten sushi before.

Will you have eaten lunch before I fetch you? (future perfect)

Yes, I will have eaten by then.

Questions Using wh- Words

When creating questions in perfect tenses that require more information from their answers — such as who, where, what, why, etc. —  then the construction follows the basic formula below:

question wordauxiliary verbsubjectpast participlerest of sentence?

Where had she eaten breakfast? (past perfect)

She had eaten breakfast at the cafe on the corner.

How much had he eaten before you arrived? (past perfect)

He had eaten half his plate before I arrived. 

By when will he have eaten lunch? (future perfect)

He will have eaten lunch by 1 pm.

Why has she eaten the cake? (present perfect)

She has eaten the cake because it’s her birthday.

English Tenses

You most likely know the three basic tenses in English: present, past, and future. We can further divide each into four forms: simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous.

Let’s briefly consider the verb “to eat” in each of these before we delve into further detail.

Present tense

The present tense describes a current action or state of being.

Present simpleI eat the cake.
Present continuousI am eating the cake.
Present perfectI have eaten the cake.
Present perfect continuousI have been eating the cake all day.

Future tense

The future tense describes a future action or state of being.

Future simpleI will eat the cake tomorrow.
Future continuousI will be eating the cake tomorrow.
Future perfectI will have eaten the cake before dinner.
Future perfect continuousI will have been eating the cake when you return.

Past tense

The past tense describes a past action or state of being.

Past simpleI ate the cake yesterday.
Past continuousI was eating the cake yesterday.
Past perfectI had eaten the cake before dinner.
Past perfect continuousI had been eating the cake before he arrived.
Image by Adrianna Calvo via Pexels

Simple Past Tense

As you will see from the table above, the only time we use “ate” is in the simple past tense. This describes that the action — in this case, eating — occurred in the past, before now.

We can use it to describe something that happened only once, several times, or over a period in the past (source), as shown in the following examples.

I ate the sandwich. (happened once)

As a child, I ate candy every day. (happened several times)

I ate too much candy during my childhood. (happened over a period in the past)

With most verbs, you create past simple by adding -ed to the verb, as seen in the examples below.

Present TensePast Simple Tense
walkwalked
jumpjumped
workworked
wantwanted
cookcooked

However, in English, there are numerous irregular verbs, such as eat, that do not follow this rule. You will have to learn these, especially the ones that are used often, such as the examples below.

Present TensePast Simple Tense
eatate
bewas/were
beginbegan
bringbrought
buy bought
comecame
dodid
drawdrew
drivedrove
getgot
givegave
feel felt
findfound
havehad
keepkept
knowknew
lielay
makemade
meetmet
paypaid
runran
sitsat
speakspoke
standstood
taketook
teachtaught
telltold
writewrote
winwon

For more information and an in-depth look at the correct use of the past tense, refer to this article, “Have Run or Had Run: When to Use the Proper Past Tense.” 

Past Participles

Past participles are verb forms we use together with an auxiliary verb, usually “to have” or “to be,” to create perfect and continuous verb forms. We can also use them as adjectives or to create passive verb forms (source).

With regular verbs, the past simple and past participle are the same, and we form both by adding -ed to the verb.

As with past simple, we simply must learn the past participles of many verbs as they don’t follow any predictable pattern. Below is a table showing the past participles of some common examples.

Present TensePast Participle
eateaten
bebeen
beginbegun
bringbrought
buy bought
comecome
dodone
drawdrawn
drivedriven
getgotten
givegiven
feel felt
findfound
havehad
keepkept
knowknown
lielain
makemade
meetmet
paypaid
runrun
sitsat
speakspoken
standstood
taketaken
teachtaught
telltold
writewritten
winwon

As you will notice, some are the same as the irregular past tense, but many are not. “Eat” is one of those that has a different form in the past tense (ate) and as a past participle (eaten). 

Auxiliary Verbs

As mentioned above, perfect tenses require an auxiliary verb, sometimes referred to as “helping” verbs. They act together with verbs to express nuances of mood and time.

The principal auxiliary verbs are “to be,” “to do,” and “to have.” Perfect tenses use “to have” as the helper verb along with the past participle. 

Perfect Verb Forms

Perfect verb forms indicate the completion of an action at some time in the past or that it will be completed (or “perfected”) before something else happens or happened (source).

Below are some examples indicating the use of past participles in various tenses.

I have eaten sushi many times. (present perfect)

The group had eaten dinner before the show. (past perfect)

She will have eaten her entree before yours arrives. (future perfect)

Passive Verb Forms

We create passive verb forms using the verb “to be” together with a past participle. The result is that the subject of the sentence receives the action rather than directly acting. 

We often see this construction in written English, although grammarians generally frown upon its overuse. The sentences below demonstrate the use of the passive verb.

The cake was eaten before the guests arrived.

These noodles can be eaten with chopsticks.

Passive construction can be useful and acceptable in certain instances. These include when trying to draw attention to what is being acted upon or when the subject is not important to the information, as shown in the examples below (source).

The cyclist was hit by an unidentified driver during the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The eclipse can be observed at 10 pm tonight.

Past Participles as Adjectives

In this case, the past participle serves as an adjective, describing the noun that it precedes. In this construction, it does not need an auxiliary verb, as is shown in the examples below.

He took the broken computer for repairs.

She saw the eaten shoe and scolded her dog.

The Basic Differences Between Past Simple and Past Participle

The information above has illustrated the key differences between simple past and past participles and when to say “ate” and when to say “eaten.”

Just to recap, then, simple past refers to an action that occurs independently of other events. It is a verb tense that can stand on its own and, therefore, “ate” will always function as the only verb in the sentence or phrase. 

Past participles are verb forms that indicate the completion of an action before another event. They cannot stand on their own, except as an adjective, and need to combine with an auxiliary verb.

If I was to ask the following question: “What did you eat before baseball practice yesterday?” then your answer could be given in either the past tense or the past perfect tense, using the past participle, as the examples below show. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com

I ate a cheese sandwich before baseball practice yesterday.

I had eaten a whole pizza before baseball practice yesterday but was still hungry!

For more information about this subject and many more language-related topics, it’s helpful to refer to both The Oxford New Essential Dictionary and the style guide Dreyer’s English, both of which you can purchase on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the role of verbs and past participles in the English language is key to being able to use them correctly in spoken or written English.

You can achieve fluency when you instinctively know what sounds right in a language and can ask and answer questions with the correct tenses and verb usage.

As a very commonly used word and an irregular verb, “eat” is an important one to master.

Besides the fact that we tend to eat three times a day, knowing when to say “ate” and when to say “eaten” is a basic skill that will assist with the mastery of many other irregular verbs.