Did for Emphasis in the Simple Past

Maggie Mello

Maggie Mello is an English language teacher and materials writer who has taught at universities in the U.S. and in institutions in Spain and Brazil. She currently lives in South Bend, Indiana and is the assistant director at University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures. In this article, Maggie distinguishes the use of did in the simple past as emphasis.

We (rightly) teach the “operator” function of did in simple past verbs—that it appears along with the lexical verb in questions and negative statements.

Erica didn’t study hard enough for the test.

Did you go on the class field trip last year?


Still, we see our students mistakenly use did in positive statements in the past, sometimes in conjunction with an –ed past form:

? We did go to Chicago last weekend.

* Their colleagues did presented on teaching pronunciation at the conference.


Our first response is to say that the past form of the lexical verb is enough—no did necessary.

We went to Chicago last weekend.

Their colleagues presented on teaching pronunciation at the conference.

But that may not always be the correct course of action. There is an instance in which the use of did in positive statements in the simple past is correct—when did emphasizes that something occurred even though the reader/listener thinks otherwise. It is important that we teach this common use to our students, as they will frequently hear it in informal speech and writing.


Consider the following conversations:


Mother: Why didn’t you turn off the lights before you left? That wastes electricity!

Son: I did turn them off! Dad must have turned them back on.

Kate: Why didn’t you work until 5:00 today?

Maria: I did! I just came straight home after.

Explain to your students that did is typically used by a speaker to stress that an action was taken, contrary to what their interlocutor appears to believe. Point out that the main verb takes the base form.

After teaching this use, remember to think twice when you see a student using did with a positive statement in the simple past–it may be intentional. Use this downloadable to help your students get more familiar with this use.


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