There are two tenses in English – past and present.

The past tense in English is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses – things that are imagined rather than true.
  • for politeness.

There are four past tense forms in English:

Tense Form
Past simple: I worked
Past continuous: I was working
Past perfect: I had worked
Past perfect continuous: I had been working

We use these forms:

  • to talk about the past:

He worked at McDonald’s. He had worked there since July..
He was working at McDonald’s. He had been working since July.

  • to refer to the present or future in conditions:

He could get a new job if he really tried.
If Jack was playing they would probably win.

and hypotheses:

It might be dangerous. Suppose they got lost.
I would always help someone who really needed help.

and wishes:

I wish it wasn’t so cold.

  • In conditions, hypotheses and wishes, if we want to talk about the past, we always use the past perfect:

I would have helped him if he had asked.
It was very dangerous, What if you had got lost?
I wish I hadn’t spent so much money last month.

 

  • We can use the past forms to talk about the present in a few polite expressions:

Excuse me, I was wondering if this was the train for York.
I just hoped you would be able to help me.

Exercise

Comments

Could you please tell me what’s wrong my sentence? sir I need your help. thank you.
“Two weeks ago I tested my level on Learnenglish.britishcouncil.org. The result was shown that my level is Intermediate. “

Hello amit_ck,

The problem is in the second sentence. You need an active verb, not a passive form:

'...the result showed that my level is intermediate.'

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Could you please help us?
I told him that we ……….. any more people today.
a) hadn’t interviewed b) aren’t interviewing
Is "today" an indicator to choose "b"?
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both forms are possible here. 'Hadn't interviewed' would tell us about the time before you told him; 'aren't interviewing' would tell us about your plans later today.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir
Which sentence is correct first or the second? Please let me know.
If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would be a very old man.
If my grandfather had lived up to ninety years he would have been a very old man.
I think the first one is correct because it is a fact. Please let me know.
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

Hi Lal,

Both can be correct -- it depends on the context. If, for example, today were his birthday, the first one would express the idea that today he would be a very old man. The second sentence would be better for speaking about the past, however, because the conditional perfect ('would have been') makes it clear you are speaking about a hypothetical past situation. This would make more sense if, for example, his birthday were earlier this month.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir
Please help me to clarify this. When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?Now I would like to know whether this sentence right or wrong. e.g. Yesterday
I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right. Is this sentence correct? This sentence is a combination of present and past but whole thing is something happened in the past. Please let me this sentence right or wrong.
Thank you..
Regards
Lal

Hello Lal,

I'm afraid I have no idea what this means:

When using past tense one can use only past tense unlike present tense one can use present , past and future I am I correct?

Verb forms are used to express ideas in logical ways. I don't know what rule you have in mind here.

 

The sentence

I met your boss and he told me that you are doing all right.

is fine. The meeting took place in the past; the telling took place in the past; the doing all right is something that is still true at the time of speaking.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

“I was wondering if I might take Danny into town?”
Sir, in this sentence why used 'was' in spite of being it present tense? I think this is very formal way to ask someone but how can I ask it informal way?
[If the way of my asking question is not right please correction it]

Hi amit_ck,

We often use the past tense to speak about the present when making requests. This makes the request less direct and therefore more polite. It is used especially in formal contexts, but is also sometimes used in more informal situations. There is a lengthier explanation of this in the Changing tenses and verb forms of this page on politeness if you'd like to learn more.

A more informal version would be something like 'Can you take Danny into town?'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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