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Can We Ever Use "Ever" with the Simple Past?

November 20, 2014

Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I was editing one of our simple past lessons recently, and I was trying to change one of the comprehension questions from the present perfect to the simple past so as not to introduce another verb tense into the lesson. The question was Have you ever seen a car accident? Changing it to Did you ever see a car accident? sounded unnatural to me, so I didn't include it in the lesson. However, this made the ESL Library team wonder if we could naturally use "ever," which provides emphasis on any time in the past, with the simple past in English.

"Ever" with the Present Perfect

The adverb "ever"  is normally used with a present perfect verb, since this tense is used for an unspecified past time. (E.g., I have tried frog's legs.) For more information on the present perfect, check out 5 Easy Steps for Teaching the Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive. With the present perfect, "ever" is used in questions and negative sentences.

  • Have you ever been to Paris?
  • Has she ever studied this before?
  • I haven't ever tried smoking.
  • He hasn't ever thanked me.

"Ever" with the Simple Past

Can "ever" be used with the simple past? Yes, but it's not that common, and it's only used in certain cases. The simple past is used for a specific time in the past that's usually mentioned in the context. (E.g., I went to a party last night.) For more information about the simple past, check out Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive. With the simple past, "ever" is only used for reference to a specific past time that has been previously mentioned (or is understood). Compare the following examples:

  • You told me yesterday that you used to live in London by yourself. Were you ever lonely? (at that time in your life)
  • Have you ever been lonely? (in your whole life)
  • You mentioned last year that you were planning a trip to Paris. Did you ever go to Paris? / Did you ever end up going? (at some point last year)
  • Have you ever been to Paris? (in your whole life)

"Ever" with Other Tenses

Can we use "ever" with present or future verbs? It's not as common as its use with the present perfect, but it's definitely possible when we want to emphasize "at any time" in the present or future. The sense that something will never actually happen (hopelessness) is also usually implied, whether it's literal or meant as a joke.

  • Present: Can I ever borrow your car?
  • Present: Are you ever home?
  • Future: Am I ever going to hear from him again?
  • Future: Will this project ever be finished?

What Should We Teach Our Students?

My advice is to teach students that "ever" is used with the present perfect tense for past cases and leave it at that. For more advanced students (or if it came up in class), I'd go into the uses for the present and future and also explain when it can be used with the simple past. I usually like teaching exceptions to a grammar rule, but I think throwing in the simple past "ever" examples would be confusing to a simple past lesson (or a present perfect lesson) and would only do so if my students could handle it. Don't forget to point out that "ever" can always be dropped! All of the example sentences above make perfect sense without "ever"---it's only used for emphasis. And in case you're wondering, we ended up dropping "ever" and changing the question to "Did you see a car accident last year? How about two years ago?" in our Grammar Stories – Simple Past with Past Progressive lesson because we didn't want to throw the present perfect into the mix!  

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Comments (9)

roxana (Guest)

Ever in PP could be in a way equal or close to'so far' but this is not the case with ever in simple past or future usage.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

roxana (Guest)

......I mean as to its meaning. Besides is the implied negativity as you mentioned or meaning something ironical

Reply to Comment

Carol T.(Teacher)

I think your mistake here is in tying 'ever' too strongly to the present perfect tense. As a guideline for communicating a certain cumulative time frame (in one's lifetime up to now) it is a useful reference and a handy clue, but it isn't a rule. What if the adverb were 'never' instead of 'ever'? Or 'often'? Or 'seldom'? Did you ever think about that? I never thought it sounded odd or funny. I tell my students that 'ever' is often used with the present perfect tense because it indicates an accumulation of time or history up to now.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Great points, Carol! I like the idea of teaching students that it's a handy tool, but not a rule.

Ba N.(Teacher)

I tell my students “ever” always used in present perfect. And sometimes if we see it in simple past, I just say it is exception because it rarely happened.Thanks for your post! I appreciate that.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's a great way to explain it. Thanks for sharing!

Olga (Guest)

Thanks for your explanation. I was surprised when I heard in educational song 'Down by the way' - Did you ever see a lama wearing pagamas)). I think Roxana's explanation that it's some kind of irony or negativirty helped me to understand the meaning and find the analogy in Russian.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Olga, thanks for commenting. 'Down by the Bay' is a great example of 'ever' used with the simple past in context. In that song, the reference to 'when you were down by the bay' is implied so the songwriter chose to use the simple past. The present perfect would also be correct (but probably wouldn't sound as great in the song!). I also agree that there are some great comments in this thread, and I'm glad one of them helped you!

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