Getting the mail can be exciting — until you receive a bill with a glaring red stamp marked, “past due.” But should it read “past due” or “passed due”?
“Past due” is grammatically correct in the case of an overdue bill, deadline, or if someone arrives after the time you expect. “Past” can be an adjective, a noun, an adverb, or even a preposition. However, “passed” is a verb or an action word, and you cannot use it in any other way. Therefore, passed due is incorrect.
The difference between “past” and “passed” lies in the part of speech of these two homophones. But some homophones can be hard to differentiate between when it comes to meaning and usage. Stick with us, and we’ll learn when it is correct to say “past” versus “passed.”
Understanding the Difference Between “Passed” and “Past”
The words “passed” and “past” are homophones. Homophones are two words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings (source). When it comes to “passed” and “past,” they are just one pair of many commonly confused homophones.
What makes these two distinctively tricky is that, while their meanings are indeed different, they are not so different as other homophones, such as “to, “too,” and “two.” These three words each mean something very different — one is a preposition, the second means “in addition,” and the third is a number.
The dictionary definition of “past” is that of a word that refers to an event that has gone by, finished, or no longer exists. You can also use it to refer to an event or time period before the one in which you are speaking or writing.
Additionally, you can also use “past” to refer to an age that is beyond a specific point or a period of time when you want to indicate that a certain number of minutes have gone by (source). There are a few ways to incorporate “past” into your writing.
However, the word “passed” is more straightforward, and it has fewer uses in terms of ways you can use it. You can only use it as a verb to indicate that something or someone has moved beyond something else, as in “I passed the tennis ball over the fence.” It is essentially the past tense verb of “pass.”
So, while the definitions of each of these words may sound similar, the way in which you use them is not quite the same.
What about Past Due?
When it comes to the phrase “past due,” it is not interchangeable with “passed due,” which is incorrect. Because we can only use “passed” as a verb, it does not fit the correct part of speech when you are communicating that something has exceeded a due date or time period.
We’ll look at that more closely later on, where we’ll break down the meaning of the phrase and look at some examples.
But first, let’s examine a few ways you can use both “past” and “passed” in your writing.
Correct Use of “Past”
Earlier, we stated that “past” can function as a few different parts of speech, including as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition (source). Here, we’ll look at some examples of each in order to better understand the difference.
It’s also important to recognize these different parts of speech. In the table below, you’ll find the meanings of each of these grammatical terms.
|Part of Speech||Meaning|
|Noun||A person, place, thing, or idea|
|Adjective||A word that describes a noun and often answers “what kind?” or “how many?”|
|Adverb||A word that describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb and generally answers “how?” “when?” “where?” “why?” “in what way?” or “to what degree?” Note: adverbs often end in “ly.”|
|Preposition||A word that comes before a noun/pronoun and shows direction, place, time, location, or special relationship.|
Using “Past” as a Noun
From the table above, you know that a noun can indicate an idea. As a noun, “past” indicates what has already occurred. Here are a few examples:
1. I often tell my brother that he should not live in the past.
2. History is my favorite school subject because I enjoy learning about the past.
3. The days of no homework are in the past for my fourth grader.
In each of these sentences, “past” refers to a moment or period of time that has already happened.
Using “Past” as an Adjective
When you use “past” as an adjective, you will do so as a word to describe a noun (or pronoun). It describes something specific that has ended or that has already happened or finished.
1. This past month has been so rainy.
2. In the past year, I’ve grown three inches!
3. My headache has improved over the past hour.
In the first sentence, “past” is describing the month; in the second, “past” describes the year; and in the third, “past” describes the previous hour. In each example, “past” functions to provide more information about the noun that follows.
Using “Past” as a Preposition
Prepositions are challenging not only for English language learners but for native speakers as well. Prepositions are words that generally indicate a relationship to time, direction, or space.
When you use past as a preposition, you will do so to indicate that something is beyond a particular point, occurs later in time, or is older in terms of age.
Here are a few examples:
1. My house is just past the white picket fence.
2. We drove past the restaurant, so we had to turn around.
3. My daughter is past the age of playing with stuffed animals.
In the first sentence above, “past” indicates where the house is (a special relationship). In the second, the word indicates where the speaker drove — again, referring to a relationship of direction or space — the driver having driven beyond the restaurant.
Finally, the third sentence shows how “past” can indicate that the speakers’ daughter is beyond a particular age.
Using “Past” as an Adverb
The final way you can use the word “past” is as an adverb. The easiest way to know if you are using “past” as an adverb is to determine whether there is a noun following. If there is a noun following, it’s more likely a preposition; if there is no noun following, you are more likely to use it as an adverb.
Here’s an example:
1. The mailman just walked past.
In this sentence, “past” is telling you more about where the mailman walked. Walked is a verb, and, therefore, “past” is an adverb describing more about the verb. Here’s another example:
2. I yelled to my mother as she ran past.
Here again, the word “past” is describing where the speaker’s mother ran. Therefore, it is an adverb. If you take a quick glance back at the parts of speech chart above, you’ll note that adverbs sometimes answer the question, “where?”
Correct Use of “Passed”
By now, you know that there is more than one way to use the term “past.” But there is only one way that you cannot use the word — you cannot use it as a verb. If you are writing a sentence and need to use a term to indicate an action where something has gone by or moved beyond, you will need to use the term “passed.”
So, just remember one thing if you find yourself confused about whether to use “past” or “passed” — if it is a verb, always choose “passed.” Otherwise, “past” is likely the word you need. Let’s take a look at a few sentences with the word “passed” to better understand how you will use it as a verb.
Using “Passed” as a Verb
Remember that “passed” shows an action, indicating that someone or something has moved beyond or by. The past tense of “pass,” as we stated earlier, shows that something has happened in the past — here, past being a noun.
Below you’ll find a few examples:
- I passed the grocery store on my way to school.
- Yesterday, we passed the house I grew up in on our way to my mom’s farm.
- I passed my exam, but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped.
In each of the sentences above, “passed” is a verb. Here’s one more example where you’ll find both words (past and passed) in two similar sentences.
- The mailman just walked past.
- The mailman just passed my house.
In the first sentence, “passed” is the action the mailman took; in the second, “past” shows where the mailman walked.
Just remember, there may be many ways that you can use “past” in a sentence, but there is only one way that you can use “passed.” “Passed” is always a verb, and you cannot use it as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition — for each of those, you’ll need to use “past.”
Past Due: Understanding Why “Passed Due” Is Incorrect
By now, you might be able to answer why “passed due” is not correct in your writing. Since you can’t differentiate between the two words in speaking, it is essential to make sure that you choose the correct one in your writing.
Remember that “passed” is actually the past tense form of the verb “to pass.” When you see the phrase “past due,” past is not a verb at all but, rather, an adjective describing something overdue.
Let’s look at an example using each word to determine which is the correct one.
1. My cell phone bill is past due.
2. My cell phone bill is passed due.
Now, rather than trying to figure out what part of speech “past” is here, simply ask yourself if it should be a verb or if it should be something else.
In each of these sentences, there is only one verb, a linking verb actually. Can you spot it?
The only verb you’ll find is the verb “is.” If you were to write, “The bill is passed due,” you would be saying that the bill is performing an action, which is not the case. What you want to say is that the bill is overdue or late.
Sometimes, it’s easier to figure out what a word is not rather than what it is. In this case, understanding that “passed” can only ever be a verb will help you know that “past” is the correct term in all other instances.
More Practice: Identifying the Correct Term on Your Own
Below, you’ll find a few sentences, each with both the word “passed” and “past.” Your job is to see if you can choose the correct term for each sentence. Remember, if you need the term to be an action word, “passed” is your only correct choice!
1. I passed/past my friend’s house on my morning run.
2. In the passed/past, I would have gotten angry, but it seems senseless now.
3. Please focus on today, not on the passed/past.
4. My sister passed/past her college entrance exams!
Below you’ll find the answers:
Only in sentences one and four do you need a verb or an action to indicate what the speaker is doing. Another simple way to choose the correct term is to look for a noun before it. Generally, if you find a noun directly before, you’ll need a verb following to indicate an action and, therefore, will most often need “passed,” not “past.”
Here’s one final tricky test:
I was so focused on the past/passed while I was driving that I completely missed my turn and past/passed the parking lot.
In this sentence, both terms are necessary — in one spot, you’ll need a noun; in the other you’ll need a verb.
Here is the correct answer:
I was so focused on the past while I was driving that I completely missed my turn and passed the parking lot.
The latter half of the sentence shows what the speaker did (passed her turn), which is an action, so you’ll need the term “passed.” In the beginning part of the sentence, “past” is correct because it indicates an idea, not an action.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about some other tricky homophones, take a look at our article on “to bad” or “too bad.”
More importantly, if you need help along the way, don’t hesitate to get yourself a copy of The Oxford New Essential Dictionary. It’s a really helpful tool to have at your fingertips, especially when it comes to tricky phrases like these. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Whether it’s figuring out if it should be “past” or “passed” or any other homophone in the English language, remember that, in time, many of these confusing topics will become second nature.
Particularly for these two homophones, all you need to do is ask yourself if you are using the term as a verb or as another part of speech in your sentence. If it is a verb, always use “passed.”
In the meantime, continue using the tools you have around you, including your dictionary, your style guide, and native speakers who can help you along the way.